Mrs Armitage (Launceston) - Mr President, the Launceston Community Legal Centre was established in 1986 with the aim to provide quality legal advice to the most vulnerable in the community. A not-for-profit organisation, it had 1700 client cases in 2015-16 and information was provided to a further 1100 people. Over 1200 of the clients seen last financial year earn $20 000 or less. The centre does not represent people in court but rather does the groundwork for them.
It employs 10 people, including a generalist solicitor providing a one-off 45-minute consultation, covering a range of information. A Welfare Rights Advocate provides advice on Centrelink matters. There are also a disability discrimination solicitor, employment solicitor and family law solicitor. The latter position aims to provide legal support during couples' separations to reduce the number of cases ending up in courts.
The centre deals with the wide range of civil matters. Recent examples include a woman from a non-English-speaking background who was underpaid and later had her employment terminated and was in great financial hardship; a man who sought help from a legal literacy volunteer to complete legal forms for a disability support pension; and a lady who came who came in to see a legal literacy volunteer to help her complete legal paperwork after the tragic death of her newborn.
The service operates an after-hours drop-in clinic on Wednesday nights from 5.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. and this is run by volunteer private practice solicitors. It is particularly to support people who may not be able to attend during work hours. This program is not means- or asset-tested.
The Launceston Community Legal Centre also operates the Legal Literacy Volunteer program, which is funded by the Solicitors' Guarantee Fund. This program started five years ago and is to help support people who are unable to complete legal forms. Members of the community are trained in this area, including learning how to know when someone has reached the stage when they need a lawyer. There are 45 to 50 volunteers working in northern Tasmania and they also attend Centrelink Launceston twice a week to help people. The centre's CEO, Nicky Snare, advises the centre is the only one in Australia currently offering this.
Another initiative they plan to pursue, subject to the outcome of the funding application, is a two-year pilot of a community mediation program. The aim would be to try to mediate in civil disputes. For example, the centre became involved when a client sought advice on a restraint order. The neighbour's children had apparently trampled a newly planted garden trying to retrieve their ball, and then the neighbour's dog got out and attacked a pet rabbit. The issue escalated to reports to the council and finally punches. The police were called and the client was charged with assault. The intervention of a mediation process may have de-escalated the conflict in this dispute well before the violence ensued.
The centre received $50 000 in the 2015-16 state Budget to fund outreach services to the Magnolia Place Launceston Women's Shelter and the east coast under the Tasmanian Government's Safe Homes, Safe Families program. Nicky has been the CEO for the past five years and does other roles herself to keep costs down - accounts, payroll and BAS statements. She says she is always looking for money as the centre runs on a tight budget. In 2016-17 it is about $640 000. The core funding is under $450 000 from federal and state governments and the balance is from the Solicitors' Guarantee Fund. The federal government fully funded the centre's main work up until June 2015. However, a change to the National Partnership Agreement saw that support to community legal centres reduced, causing substantial cuts to community legal centres in Tasmania, including Launceston.
In Launceston's case the cuts have impacted on programs such as the interpreter service. It now costs them $3500 a year to employ interpreters; it is money they now have to find. The state Government has topped up funding in 2015-16 and 2016-17, maintaining funding at the 2014-15 levels, but the state faces a $500 000 cut to federal funding for community legal centres in 2017-18. Nicky warns jobs will have to be shared across all community legal centres unless that shortfall can be fixed.
Nicky Snare says their lawyers have a strong sense of social justice and they are passionate about ensuring people know their legal rights. She is regularly moved by the appreciation demonstrated by clients. Nicky says one elderly man brought flowers from his garden as he could not afford to buy them, and another man on a disability support pension donated $12 to help the service. Pensions are not huge so that was an extremely generous act.
I congratulate the Launceston Community Legal Centre on 30 years of outstanding service. I urge anyone wishing to make a donation in their local community to look no further than this centre as it continues a proud tradition of championing social justice and protecting society's most vulnerable.