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Disquiet over women’s legal centre funding

Legal centres that help women experiencing domestic violence have expressed disappointed they may not see a historic funding boost promised to them in the federal budget.

In the May budget, the federal government earmarked $129 million over four years for women’s legal centres.

A press release announced “129.0 million … will be directed to women’s legal centres, to enable these providers to respond to increasing demand for domestic violence assistance”.

But a senior bureaucrat in the Attorney-General’s Department told Senate estimates on Tuesday the money could go to legal aid commissions, Aboriginal legal services and community legal services – not just specialist women’s legal services.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said it was a “misunderstanding”.

“It wasn’t to women’s legal centres – capital W, capital L, capital C,” Senator Cash told the estimates hearing.

“It was women’s legal services to women, including those experiencing or at risk of family violence.”

Cash-strapped specialist women’s legal services, which had welcomed the announcement as a historic and necessary funding boost, say they’re crestfallen.

“(It’s) disappointment, incredible disappointment,” said Janet Taylor, managing principal solicitor at the Central Australian Women’s Legal Services and a spokesperson for Women’s Legal Services Australia.

“There’s a collective sense of loss and grief and frustration that the promise of change was just snatched away,” said Ms Taylor’s colleague Julianna Marshall.

Demand for services provided by women’s legal centres has increased by 70 per cent over the past year, with a 40 per cent increase in urgent demand for drop-in services.

Specialist legal services have built up expertise over decades and can address gendered issues holistically in a way that other legal bodies cannot, Ms Taylor said.

The $129 million will be distributed through the states and territories rather than given directly to legal services, with individual jurisdictions able to decide on how to allocate the money.

In Tasmania, the only specialist women’s legal service has received $650,000 of the state’s $1.5 million, with the rest given to other services, Women’s Legal Service Tasmania CEO Yvette Cehtel.

“They haven’t delivered what was promised,” Ms Cehtel said of the $129 million pledge.

If her service had received all the funding “we would have been able to help a lot more women”, she said. The body provides important services, like small property fund matters, that nobody else in the state offers.

A spokesman for Senator Cash told AAP “the intention is to provide this funding to legal services for women, not a specific type of legal assistance provider”.

“Remote and regional communities do not usually have specialist women’s legal centres, so a failure to fund general community legal centres will mean that many women in regional and remote areas will be cut off from much-needed support,” the spokesman said.

There’s a requirement that state and territories allocate “some” of the funding to specialist community legal centres, which the spokesman said was consistent with the wording of the budget announcement.

Women’s Legal Services Australia objects to the way the money has been divided among the states and territories, arguing it does not match the need of the services within them.

According to pro bono modelling commissioned by the group ahead of the budget and provided to the government, the NT required more than $31 million over four years because of significant and complex need there. Instead, it will receive about $1 million.

The Shadow Assistant Minister for Communities and the Prevention of Family Violence, Jenny McAllister, described the funding promise as “yet another cruel trick designed solely to produce an announcement, but with no intention to actually deliver when the need for action has never been greater”.

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