Legal centre set back
Friday, 18th January, 2013
By Kurtis J Eichler
Federal MP Sussan Ley will seek an urgent meeting with Attorney-General Nicola Roxon next month to discuss the plight of the Far West Community Legal Centre.
Months' worth of lobbying and fundraising through movie premieres and barbecues has done little to help the struggling firm, which will scale back its opening hours from Monday.
A forecast budget deficit from June 31 has forced CEO Tracey Willow to make some tough decisions, including closing the centre two days a week.
The federally-funded centre will now only deal with case work, legal advice and community legal education from Tuesday to Thursday and commit to the most "essential" work.
Ms Willow has long campaigned for state funding as well as a boost to their federal funding.
"We did know that this was coming," Ms Willow told the BDT yesterday.
"At the end of last year we did a lot of community awareness raising and fundraising in our own time and a lot of lobbying but it didn't generate any funding.
"The money we receive from the commonwealth is not enough; not enough to run a service whose focus is Far West NSW."
After hearing the news yesterday, Ms Ley said she'd talk with Ms Roxon when Parliament resumed on February 5.
"I am writing to the Federal Attorney General seeking an urgent meeting when Parliament resumes to highlight the obvious problems this funding shortfall
will cause the Far West," she said.
The FWCLC provides assistance to the entire Far West including Wilcannia, Ivanhoe and Wanaaring.
It did have plans to roll out outreach services to Tibooburra and White Cliffs but those have now been shelved.
"We will only be able to speak to those regions if they have access to a telephone," Ms Willow said.
She said $180,000 was needed per annum to "do everything we need to do."
No job losses are in the pipeline yet but the pay packets of some senior staff have been slashed.
Principal Solicitor Mariette Curcuruto and Ms Willow have taken pay cuts of up to 40 per cent in a bid to keep the service open.
Ms Curcuruto said she felt as if she'd "broken a promise" to clients.
"I have had to cut services to those who need them the most.
"It's honestly one of the hardest days of my career.
"I've lost sleep over it, I've cried over it, but I cannot see any other way."
Face-to-face appointments will be reduced to Thursday and solicitors will cut travel to Menindee from fortnightly to monthly and only visit the BH jail monthly.
The centre will remain free to those eligible, but Ms Willow said the criteria has been tightened to help only the most disadvantaged.
"We are working at a reduced capacity. The region is not getting the best from us and we are not doing our best work," Ms Willow added.
"It's a devastating decision to make and it's a decision we shouldn't be making out here in the Far West.
"We will take anything from governments, state or federal, at this stage."
Both Ms Roxon and NSW Attorney General, Greg Smith, were unavailable for comment yesterday.
But spokesman for Mr Smith said Legal Aid supported the FWCLC through a family solicitor in Dubbo.
Funding for the centre came from the Public Purpose Fund, which is made up of cash generated from the interest issued on solicitors' trust accounts and administered by the Law Society of NSW.
All decisions regarding funding are made by independent trustees of the PPF.