Page 3284 - Week 10 - Wednesday, 19 October 2022

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MRS KIKKERT (Ginninderra) (11.05): Legal Aid is an essential service for many Canberra families, including those who find themselves entangled in the child protection and/or youth justice systems. Six years ago Legal Aid ACT’s submission to the Glanfield inquiry called for an external merits review mechanism for child protection decisions because it was not adequately resourced to assist families with legal challenges to these decisions.

Concerns about adequate access to legal representation and advocacy remain. The Our Booris, Our Way Steering Committee noted in their final report that this access is “extremely limited”. This may be especially true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. The New South Wales government provides funding to the Aboriginal Legal Service to provide assistance with child protection matters. In contrast, the ACT government’s funding model for the Aboriginal Legal Service does not provide any resourcing for child protection matters. The Our Booris, Our Way report calls this an anomaly in ALS service provision and further notes that this refusal by Labor and the Greens to fund the Aboriginal Legal Service to assist with child protection matters “leaves organisations such as Legal Aid and the Women’s Legal Service, both of which are under-resourced for their demand”.

Access to legal representation in child protection matters is very important. One public submission to the Our Booris, Our Way review states that the territory’s child protection system is:

… impenetrable for many of our clients who are highly vulnerable, have low levels of literacy and a deep mistrust of child protection agencies due to past and current practices. The system is not conducive to participation and the voices of children and parents being heard, especially in the context of vulnerable parents.

The same submission made a clear recommendation: every family should receive legal advice as soon as they begin to engage with child protection services. This means, of course, that organisations such as Legal Aid would need to be adequately funded to provide ongoing advocacy and legal representation to assist families to navigate the jurisdiction and prevent matters from escalating.

Let me make an important point here: getting the funding right actually results in cost savings over time. The worse that matters are allowed to get, the more expensive they become to fix. I quote again:

Investment in early intervention circumvents costly, time-consuming and traumatic escalation of child protection matters through the legal system and separation of families.

It should come as no surprise, then, that recommendation 8(b) from the Our Booris, Our Way final report is as follows:

The Steering Committee recommends that funding be made available, as a matter of urgency, to professional legal and advocacy services that are culturally appropriate to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families are able to access formal legal services.

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