By CAM LUCADOU-WELLS and ANEEKA SIMONIS
FAMILY violence victims and other vulnerable clients are being turned away from budget-savaged community legal centres in Greater Dandenong.
Springvale-Monash Legal Service and Casey-Cardinia Community Legal Service are reporting growing demand but are facing a second consecutive wave of federal cuts.
As part of $3 million in federal savings, each of the free services already had $200,000 withdrawn over two years.
Kristen Wallwork, executive director of SMLS, said volunteers increasingly propped up its services for 400 clients a month – including those on welfare payments, disabled and of non-English speaking backgrounds.
“Our capacity is absolutely at capacity,” Ms Wallwork said.
“Our job is to meet demand by using our fantastic volunteer base. It is not fair on them that they do a lot of work and are not paid.
“It is also hard work for us to supervise and not necessarily as effective.”
Recently, the service had the “awful” task of dropping its service for “unaccompanied humanitarian minors” and a migration lawyer and a migration agent were made redundant.
“We often turn away people with family law matters – who identify as experiencing violence – and are not able to access other legal services,” Ms Wallwork said.
“We have waiting lists for employment law services.”
Vera Hardiman, prinicipal solicitor at the Dandenong-based Casey-Cardinia Community Legal Service, said its Narre Warren office was set to close in June despite a growing list of Casey clients.
“It’s devastating. People are already ringing up and we are saying we can’t help you,” she said.
“They’re going ballistic. They are at the end of their tether – a lot of people are at the point of suicide.”
Its financial counselling, which helped 271 clients with hardship issues such as bankruptcy, debt and motor vehicle accidents, has recently closed due to the cuts.
A solicitor and three financial counsellors were made redundant last month – despite a 32 per cent increase in demand for financial counselling in the past five years.
Michael Smith, who chairs National Association of Community Legal Centres, said the sector was fighting further federal cuts that could rip out 20 per cent of funding.
Many of the community legal centres’ clients are those who miss out on help from Victoria Legal Aid – which has had $3.5 million withdrawn by the Federal Government.
VLA last week stated the cuts compounded a “significant unmet legal need” in south-east Melbourne.
The service had already significantly restricted its eligibility criteria in 2013 due to lack of funds.
As a consequence, the Dandenong-based service helped 2000 less people with face-to-face legal advice and representation in 2013-14 than two years earlier.
“Additional funding (is) needed to enable us to relax our means test, which is the most stringent in Australia,” a VLA spokeswoman said.
Isaacs MP and Federal opposition attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, when in government two years ago, boosted funding for free legal services.
“It is a tragedy when victims of family violence seek assistance and are told that they can’t be helped because of government cuts.
“More and more people are slipping through the cracks.”
State Attorney General Martin Pakula this month joint-signed a letter with other state and territory attorneys general pleading for no further funding cuts.
The State Government had meanwhile allocated an extra $2 million for community legal centres and $1.2 million for more family-violence duty lawyers for victims at magistrates’ courts.
A Productivity Commission report in December recommended an extra $200 million for legal assistance services in Australia – which would make 400,000 more people eligible for help.
An Attorney-General Department spokesman didn’t respond to the Journal’s inquiries last week.