One of Australia’s first and busiest community legal services may have to close its doors on Friday nights in the face of major Commonwealth funding cuts.
Despite growing numbers of people needing free legal assistance, Fitzroy Legal Service said it may no longer afford its week-nightly service in the face of a 30% funding cut from July 1.
Launching a fundraising campaign to keep the Friday evening legal advice service open, FLS’s executive officer Claudia Fatone said if $40,000 couldn’t be raised by July 1, frontline services may have to be stripped back.
“With rising demand for legal support around family violence, drug and alcohol, mental health and housing services, we may have no choice but to reduce our frontline services for people most in need of our practical legal support,” Ms Fatone said.
Across Victoria, about $3 million will be lost from community legal centres in July, including the Women’s Legal Service, Darebin Community Legal Centre and the Consumer Action Law Centre.
The Fitzroy Legal Service is the only community legal centre in Victoria now offering a free drop in service five nights a week, along with innovative outreach services for family violence and drug and alcohol support services.
A who’s who of Melbourne’s legal fraternity today backed the “Save our Friday” campaign by FLS, including Robert Richter QC, one of the early volunteers at FLS in the 1970s.
“It’s false economy, because the costs of minor legal matters then grow into health care and family violence and homelessness and legal breaches when the court system is already under mounting pressure,” Mr Richter, QC said.
To help keep the free nightly legal service open, go to https://pozible.com/project/saveourfriday
“Fitzroy Legal Service is not just a legal service, it provides socio-legal assistance for people who are desperate and in trouble and who can’t buy their way out of it.” – Robert Richter QC, a former volunteer at FLS.
“We cannot come close to meeting the current legal need in our community, and yet we have hit a funding cliff that may force us to wind back valuable services,” FLS executive officer Claudia Fatone said.
“We don’t want to turn away people from our frontline services, but we may have no choice if we can’t raise $40,000 by July 1,” FLS chair, Mr Bruce McBain said.
When Ari (not his real name) was arrested for missing a payment on his significant infringements debt, no one asked him whether his cancer or his subsequent inability to work much had played a part. Ari, a machine operator who was waiting for a particular cancer treatment, had been following court orders and making payments on his Citylink fines for two years before he defaulted. It may have been his poor proficiency with English that prevented his situation becoming known as he was taken to prison, but the absence of a legal requirement to ask would see him remain there for some weeks. It was a distressed relative who told his story to a volunteer lawyer at the FLS free legal advice service one evening.
Our staff prepared an affidavit and presented medical materials to the Magistrates' Court showing the change in Ari’s circumstances. The Court expedited the hearing and sought out a Victoria Legal Aid duty lawyer to apply for revocation of the warrant. After hearing arguments, the Magistrate ordered Ari’s release and discharged his fines in full. Ari, who appeared in court via video link from prison, was overwhelmed by the prospect of release and broke down in tears as the translator’s words sunk in.
Our lawyer who assisted Ari described his imprisonment as “deeply concerning”, saying it denied him urgent treatment. “There are systemic issues with the infringements system, both in terms of process and basic concepts of proportionality,” she said. “Tax evasion involving much greater sums of money does not attract the same level of draconian response.”
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