The Federal Government has announced it will take $13.3 million over four years from NATSILS.
The Federal Government has announced it will take $13.3 million over four years from NATSILS. Chris Ison

AHRC concerned about cuts to Indigenous legal aid services

IN ITS quest to balance the books, the Federal Government has made cuts to legal aid services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders which will lead to more indigenous people ending up behind bars according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The cuts to the National Aboriginal Torres Strait Island Legal Service will cost the jobs of policy officers, who consult with government on proposed legal changes, but could also cost some critical services.

On Tuesday, the government announced it would take $13.3 million over four years from NATSILS or about 5% of its total funding.

Attorney-General Senator George Brandis said the government was determined to improve its budget but these cuts would not affect "frontline services".

The federally-funded AHRC launched a stinging rebuke on the cuts, with Commissioner Mick Gooda saying "more people will end up in prison".

"The Federal Government's decision to cut funding for these essential legal services will further entrench Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as second-class citizens," he said.

ATSILS or - Aboriginal Torres Strait Island Legal Service Queensland - warns the vow from the government about protecting the frontline will depend on where that $13.3 million comes from.

ATSILS has 26 branches in Queensland, including Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba, Ipswich, Warwick, Mackay and Rockhampton.

Both ATSILS and its New South Wales counterparts, the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW, are waiting for clarification on where the axe will fall.

ATSIL chief Shane Duffy said much of its work helped not only those caught up in criminal matters, but prevents many from ever entering the court system.

Mr Duffy said at least 28,000 Indigenous women used the service annually.

In Queensland, one-in-three prisoners are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, which underscored the need for the service, he said.

"(The government) would rather pay $130,000 a year then invest in a representation system that aims to keep people out of the courts," he said

ALS NSW chief legal officer John McKenzie said the loss of policy officers alone meant new laws were not taking into account the needs of indigenous people.

"They won't have the benefits of our voice, the ALS people who are at the coal face and who could give the legitimate point of view outside the city areas," Mr McKenzie said.

The ALS NSW has branches in Coffs Harbour, Grafton and Lismore.

He repeated the concern from Mr Duffy that until detail is known, the fate of its braches was also unknown.