Three month review highlights importance of community legal centres

Good news: Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre's Latoya Smith, Jane Titterington and Sarah Dahlenburg. Photo: supplied

Good news: Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre's Latoya Smith, Jane Titterington and Sarah Dahlenburg. Photo: supplied

Funding certainty, better planning of projects and programs and recognition of the value and cost effectiveness of the community legal centre sector.

These are the main points flowing from a three month review of community legal centres.

The results of the review were this week released alongside the state government's response.

The review was conducted by Alan Cameron AO, who acted independently of his role at the NSW Law Reform Commission.

Some key recommendations from the review include, the continuation of the current broad range of legal assistance services, a general expansion of existing state funding for community legal centres and additional funding over four years.

Principal solicitor with Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre Jane Titterington said the review would, hopefully, mean a more sustainable funding stream for the Port Macquarie-based Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre.

"I would hope the government will take up some of the recommendations outlined in the review," Ms Titterington said.

"Often we are waiting from year to year to see what our funding is going to be.

"These recommendations, if adopted, would be a good outcome for the excellent people working in the sector and also in our ability to implement long range planning.

"It was good to have this review,” she said.

"For us, this report recognises our value, effectiveness and cost effectiveness of the legal centre and legal services more broadly."

Often we are waiting from year to year to see what our funding is going to be.

Jane Titterington

Ms Titterington said the three year funding cycle would be a great step forward, but she admitted 'I would have liked to have seen a five year funding cycle'.

She said current and future staff would also appreciate not coming into a sector that is continually facing funding cuts. "It will provide more certainty, for everyone," she added.

The report emphasises the importance of community legal centres in helping people and communities with their everyday problems, she said.

“Without early and accessible legal assistance, the problems our centre helps with, including debt, employment, elder abuse and issues around domestic violence, can escalate and cause serious financial, social and health problems,” she said.

“In the past 12 months Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre assisted many people with legal advice and casework. Ninety seven per cent of the centre’s casework was for people in the community experiencing financial disadvantage."

Among the key recommendations in the 2017 review were:

  • Community legal centres should continue to provide their current broad range of legal assistance services, including direct service delivery and strategic law reform advocacy.
  • A general expansion of existing state funding for community legal centres to just under $12 million per year, to address critical areas of need and allow for funding of community legal services not currently funded by government.
  • Additional funding of $15.6 million over four years, announced in the 2018-19 NSW Budget, to implement the recommendations of the review, including supporting the sector through any changes required and developing an evidence base for future funding allocations with the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW.
  • Shifting to a minimum three-year funding cycle for community legal centres, providing community legal centres with the kind of stability required to deliver quality services and respond effectively to emerging areas of need in the community.
  • Government investment in the development of an outcomes measurement framework and the removal of unnecessary duplication in reporting in the legal assistance sector. 

Community legal centres faced an uncertain when funding cuts were announced in 2016.