• Tue. Aug 9th, 2022

NT Legal Aid eyes further cuts to services after suspension of bush courts

ByChad J. Johnson

Jul 17, 2022

The director of the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission (NTLAC) says she may have “no choice” but to cut legal services further if acute budget problems are not resolved.

Since April this year, the commission has refused to grant legal aid to new clients outside the major centers of Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs.

Director Annmarie Lumsden told the ABC that the decision to suspend circuit court services was “unfortunate”.

“We were advised by the Ministry of the Attorney General and Justice in January this year that our reimbursement for bush court expenses was going to be capped at a lower amount than what we had already spent,” he said. said Ms. Lumsden.

“The department has asked us to consider whether we should continue with bush court services for this exercise and in the future.”

The suspension means residents of remote communities and outposts who cannot be represented by the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) due to conflict of interest concerns have been forced to represent themselves themselves or travel hundreds of kilometers to attend court in a major centre. .

Ms Lumsden said the decision was “not fair” to people who would be deprived of legal representation.

But she said she ‘can’t spend no money [she does] not have”.

“Nearly 100% of people who appear in bush court are First Nations people who are economically and socially disadvantaged and many of them speak an indigenous language as their first language,” she said.

“If they’re not properly represented, they don’t have a good understanding of the charges they face.

According to its annual report, in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the legal aid commission received 619 dispute referrals from NAAJA and nearly half of its clients were Indigenous.

Inside a bush land at Borroloola, 900 kilometers southeast of Darwin.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

The NTLAC suspended bush court services for around six months in 2019, leading to an ad-hoc funding agreement with the Northern Territory government which Ms Lumsden said had been working so far.

“We made an agreement [in 2019] with the department through which they would reimburse NTLAC based on an invoice only,” Ms Lumsden said.

“So the idea was that we would spend the money and then submit an invoice quarterly and be reimbursed for those services.”

In April, a spokesman for the department told the ABC: ‘NTLAC receives funding from the Northern Territory Government through Appropriations to the Department and the Commonwealth Government, under the National Assistance Partnership The NTLAC sets its priorities in accordance with its constituting legislation.”

Cutting services is the “only way” to save

Ms Lumsden said a similar reimbursement arrangement had been put in place for expensive cases – such as lengthy Supreme Court trials – but the criteria for an expensive case had become “tighter”.

“Unfortunately, this is the first year that we have had absolutely no success in being reimbursed for expensive Northern Territory cases under a Treasurer’s Advance,” Ms Lumsden said.

A group of people seated around a table in a small conference room, with folders and papers all over the table.
NT Legal Aid says some remote Territorians have less access to representation during bush courts after funding cuts.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Ms Lumsden said NTLAC’s budget allocation for 2022-23 was also “significantly lower” than in previous years.

According to the Northern Territory Government’s 2022-23 budget, funding for NTLAC and Community Legal Centers has increased by almost $490,000.

The budget documents did not specify how much of the money was allocated to each service.

Ms Lumsden said the NTLAC board is now considering further cuts to services.

“We have very few options…are we reducing duty counsel services in Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek?” she says

“One option would be to reduce trials in the Supreme Court. Obviously, we wouldn’t want to do that, but we may not have a choice.”

Attorney General ‘pledges’ to fund justice sector

Northern Territory Attorney General Chansey Paech visited the Maningrida bush court earlier this month, where some defendants were forced to represent themselves due to a lack of legal aid services .

A close-up of Chansey Paech, Minister of the Government of the Northwest Territories.
Mr. Paech says he wants legal services to be adequately funded.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Mr Paech said he had since applied for “urgent” legal aid funding to restore the functions of the bush courts.

“I am absolutely committed to working with the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission and the wider justice community to ensure that we have an appropriately funded fair and just system to respond to applications,” said Mr Paesh.

“My job now is to work with my colleagues to see how we can respond and how we can adequately fund the NTLAC, the Director of Public Prosecutions and to ensure that all justice services are adequately funded.

“We cannot afford to have justice delayed…justice delayed is justice denied.”