Image: Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney (Mark Dreyfus Facebook)

Less than a week after 13 courts in regional NSW were forced to suspend Aboriginal Legal Services, the sector has been thrown a lifeline.

On Friday, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus announced an extra $21 million in one-off funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

Mr Dreyfus says the additional funding will be provided to the sector’s peak body NATSILS and come from within existing resources of the Attorney-General’s Department, to ensure ongoing access to justice for First Nations people.

Ahead of the release of the 2023 budget, NATSILS Chair Karly Warner called for $250 million in emergency core funding to stop ongoing service freezes in multiple communities around the country.

ATSILS in QLD had already implemented suspensions including at Atherton, Innisfail, Mareeba, and Tully.

Ms Warner welcomed the federal government’s announcement but says the band aid measure will do little more than help keep the lights on.

“We fully expect service freezes to continue and that means bad outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians including unjust incarceration and separated families.

“This increase in funding will mean different things for different services around the country,’ she said.

Ms Warner said demand for Indigenous legal services had doubled since 2018 but core funding from the Commonwealth has declined in real terms.

“Service freezes risk disastrous outcomes including increased family violence and child removal, unjust incarceration, and deaths in custody.

“The difficult decision to freeze services will be devastating for our organisations because it means real people who deserve culturally appropriate legal representation are turned away and suffer unnecessarily through the justice system,” she said. 

Mr Dreyfus said the $21 million was in addition to the $440 million provided by the government to Indigenous legal services over five years under the National Legal Assistance Partnership.

The attorney-general also said the money builds on the “record $99 million First Nations Justice Package” he announced with Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney in October 2022.

The First Nations Justice Package includes $13.5 million in extra funding to ATSILS to increase their capacity to provide culturally appropriate legal assistance in coronial inquiries, and $1 million to build greater capacity in NATSILS to provide leadership across the Indigenous legal sector.