Riverland Community Legal Service

Mr WHETSTONE (Chaffey) (15:06): Today, I rise to voice the concerns of the Riverland community about the structural changes to legal services in the region and the severe impacts these decisions will have. Late last month, the state government announced a restructure of community legal services across the state and, sadly, the Riverland was hit the hardest. The Riverland Community Legal Service is based in Berri and provides a valuable service for those who cannot afford legal advice, particularly for issues which are often complex in nature and require face-to-face contact. It currently employs five staff and is a well-utilised service for the disadvantaged in our community. I am extremely concerned about these proposed changes.

 

As the member for Mount Gambier highlighted yesterday, presently there are eight community legal centres that receive community funding in South Australia. The South Australian Labor government only contributes just under $1 million each year to the community legal centres, or just 19 per cent of the total funding pool. South Australia is the second lowest contributor of any state or territory government in Australia, with other state governments contributing over 40 per cent or more.

As of 1 July, almost 20 years of the Riverland Community Legal Service providing support and advice to the region and its surrounds will come to an end. I commend the huge work that has been done by the service, particularly through Neil Smith and Marilyn Wilksch. Over almost 20 years, lawyers at the service have advised and represented thousands of disadvantaged people in family law matters, such as divorce, parenting orders, property division, intervention orders and assisting women who are victims of domestic violence.

They have advised, represented and educated individuals on matters such as neighbourhood disputes, start-up businesses, retail and commercial leases, criminal law, licence disqualifications, traffic law, fencing disputes, enduring power of attorney, guardianships and medical power of attorney. They have provided employment law advice and assisted migrants.

The state government's short-sighted decision to close this very important Riverland service will have far-reaching consequences. From 1 July, the five employees at the Riverland Community Legal Service will no longer have a job. The centre is still dealing with a high number of cases, many complex in nature, and it was given four weeks to wind up. They need months, not weeks, to wind up this service, particularly with cases that are halfway through. This impact is still being felt, and it will continue to be felt for a long period of time.

The Southern Community Justice Centre at Christies Beach will now operate the Riverland Community Legal Services. That is an outreach service from the Riverland to Christies Beach. I think it is just outrageous. I am advised that the region may potentially have a part-time employee, but until then travel will be required. Labor's federal government blame game is not going to cut it this time. The state government's cut is $6 million. The Law Society of South Australia, legal professionals and community legal centres have spoken and made substantial submissions to the Attorney-General to reverse these cuts.

As to the Riverland Community Legal Services, here are just a few numbers of what they undertake as a very important service. Over the last 12 months, they have had face-to-face appointments with 30 to 40 clients per week. That is approximately 1,500 clients per year. Twenty to 30 community legal education sessions were delivered to community, schools, community health, ac.care, Relationships Australia, ethnic groups, senior citizens, carers, adult learning centres, TAFE and so on. They have provided a free duty solicitor service at the Berri Magistrates Court on days when legal aid solicitors are not funded to attend and outreach visits to Morgan, Waikerie, Cadell, Karoonda and Pinnaroo. These centres have been a great base for newly qualified lawyers wanting to get experience.

I received a letter today from Mediation SA, a service that my office has utilised to provide advice to constituents. The letter has informed me that Mediation SA, which has operated for 30 years, will close on 30 June as unfortunately Southern Community Justice Centre was not successful in securing ongoing funding to continue to deliver mediation services in South Australia. The service will now be provided by Uniting Communities' Central Community Legal Centre, and hopefully a similar level of service that has been provided before will continue.

In conclusion, I wrote to the Attorney-General expressing my concerns almost four weeks ago. I have not had a response. The Riverland cannot afford to have another service centralised to the city, particularly one that provides a community legal service as the region deals with major challenges such as increased drug crime and domestic violence.

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