4 June 2021

Vulnerable Canberrans left out in the cold when legal funding ends

| Dominic Giannini
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Man sleeping in the back of his car

Two in three people who access Canberra Community Law are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Judith exhausted her savings sleeping in motels and her car to escape abusive neighbours at her Housing ACT complex and couldn’t access crisis or low income accommodation.

Kate was facing eviction from community housing after losing her job and caring for two young children including a son with complex behavioural and mental health needs.

Monica was fleeing domestic violence and couch surfing with her three children with a tenant maintenance debt hanging over her head.

These are the kind of people that the Street Law program helps but without a continuation of its COVID-funding, the service will need to reduce its capacity by 20 per cent – or 170 vulnerable Canberrans – from 1 July.

Canberra Community Law, which runs the Street Law program, is the only free legal service in the ACT that specialises in housing, Centrelink, disability and racial discrimination and homelessness law.

Executive Director and Principal Solicitor at Canberra Community Law Genevieve Bolton said the service was seeing an increase in evictions due to the eviction moratorium coming to an end.

“More of our clients are facing homelessness due to already existing financial hardship and the inability to access affordable housing, as well as a lack of crisis accommodation and other options,” she said.

“Recently our ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) Duty Lawyer has seen their workload double with Housing ACT bringing applications to ACAT where rental arrears are very high due to delayed debt recovery action.”

Shane Rattenbury

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said Cabinet was working on a two stage budget process to help services that have funding ending on 30 June. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

More than 90 per of people who access Canberra Community Law’s services and programs have experienced financial disadvantage and two in three people are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

More than a third of clients have disclosed domestic or family violence to the service (which is underreported, it says) and 60 per cent have a disability.

Canberra Community Law also runs the Dhurrawang Aboriginal Human Rights program and Women In Prison Legal Empowerment Sessions program, both of which help women at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC).

“There has been an increase in demand from people in the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) seeking out our services,” Ms Bolton said.

“Unfortunately, without ongoing funding, it is inevitable that many people will miss out on free legal help.”

Canberra Community Law has called on the ACT Government to help support the continuation of its services with $500,000 in the upcoming Territory budget in August.

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee brought forward a motion in support of Canberra Community Law in the ACT Legislative Assembly on Wednesday (2 June), which called on the ACT Government to provide funding certainty within seven days.

ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said the Commonwealth Government had left a gap by not continuing COVID-19 funding despite the pressure remaining on services during the pandemic.

But the ACT Government was also in a tough position because it could not cover all of the Commonwealth’s omissions in its recent federal budget, Mr Rattenbury said.

“One of the things we are trying to do with the altered budget cycle is that some people have funding ending on 30 June, Cabinet is working on a two stage budget process where we can give some people certainty before [then],” he said.

Mr Rattenbury commended Canberra Community Law for what it has done for the community but amended the motion to remove the seven day timeframe.

The removal of the timeframe was not due to a lack of support for Canberra Community Law but because the ACT Government was continuing with its budget processes and the seven day timeframe was not practical, Mr Rattenbury said.

The ACT Budget will be handed down in August and will be the second Territory budget of the year, following the delayed 2020-21 budget being handed down in February this year due to the pandemic.

Original Article published by Dominic Giannini on The RiotACT.

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