Are things improving for family violence frontline services?

"There are a number of significant challenges. There are still many stories that aren't being told," writes Moo Baulch.

"There are a number of significant challenges. There are still many stories that aren't being told," writes Moo Baulch. Photo: Stocksy

Antoinette Braybrook has her fingers crossed.

Good news could be next month. Or perhaps January.

Braybrook, the national convenor of the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, and other leading figures from legal assistance services in Australia believe the federal government has finally changed its position for the better on funding services which protect women from family violence.

Community legal centres and family violence prevention legal services suffered devastating cuts by the Abbott government almost as soon as it came to power, in December 2013. These cuts, which would affect around 60 individual centres nationally, were scheduled to take effect in July 2015 and would have amounted to $11.8 million over two years.

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Strong lobbying fended off the most immediate cuts but the Federal Government then locked in a national funding cut for community legal centres of nearly 30 per cent from 2017–18 onwards, with plans to reduce funding by around $12 million in that year down to $30 million.

There was no negotiation, no discussion. The Abbott government's war on advocacy hurt the very women who needed strong advocates – victims of family violence.

But seven representatives of legal assistance organisations went to Canberra earlier this month, meeting with staffers for the Attorney General George Brandis, Social Services Minister Christian Porter and Minister for Women Michaelia Cash. They say the mood was much more conciliatory, very different. Braybrook said she felt a real change.

"We felt welcomed, advisors actually wanted to talk to us.  The doors were open for us to have conversations," she said.

And if those conversations are about making real change, the opportunity is just around the corner. The next possible alteration to funding arrangements is what could be called a kind of six month budget zhuzh - the release of MYEFO, the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook - when the government tries to fix the errors it made in May. It has until the end of January to make corrections.

But the Minister for Women MIchaelia Cash is not giving anything away.

"It would be inappropriate to comment on specific measures relating to MYEFO," she said yesterday.

 "The Commonwealth Government values and supports the important work of all front line service personnel who help assist victims of domestic violence, such as the dedicated staff in Community Legal Centres."

Braybrook was not alone in thinking that the federal government had had a change of heart. Rosslyn Monro, the new head of the National Association of  Community Legal Centres, had precisely the same reaction.

"On an informal basis, there is increasing good will but we don't have a cast iron guarantee."

And a guarantee is just what they are looking for. These are the services who are currently turning clients away because they just can't fund the solicitors.

"There are tangible consequences those cuts will have for people in the community," she said.

Not only is she hoping for a revision of the cuts but a recognition of the importance of funding women's safety.

"Our argument is that we have been an underfunded sector for a long time . . .  we understand the government now recognises that there has been a substantial reduction in the sector."

Liana Buchanan, executive officer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres in Victoria, is deeply concerned for the future. She says that if the proposed cuts are not restored, in July 2017, CLCs will be facing a dramatic cut in funding. In Victoria, it will be close to 30 per cent.

"Community legal centres will have to again stop duty lawyer services in some courts, again look at sacking staff and cutting back on cases they take on.

"They will have to reduce services and turn more people in need away," she said.

Braybrook hopes the money is returned to the sector. She says that since the demise of the national program of the Family Violence Prevention Legal Service, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are no longer a priority.

"He must reinstate the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services program [which works specifically with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples] and increase the funding," said Braybrook.

"We received nothing under the Women's Safety Package," she said.

The Women's Safety Package had a tremendous impact and just two months ago, Brandis announced $15 million over three years ($5 million per year) for family violence legal assistance. But that money does not offset the cuts commencing in 2017 -  by nearly $20 million on National Partnership Agreement figures. Only a dozen community legal centres were designated to receive that money and there are nearly 200 of these centres.

An examination of the figures provided in the 2015 Budget and the National Partnerships Agreement shows funding disappearing in every state and territory on July 1, 2017.

Which makes this statement on Wednesday by Michaelia Cash all the more fascinating.

She said: "Under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, through which legal aid commissions and community legal services are funded, people experiencing family violence are a priority client group."

Hard to imagine you could turn your back on a priority.

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