By -

More people will have access to free legal aid across NSW, thanks to a record funding injection to the legal assistance sector of $95 million from the Commonwealth Government.

Commonwealth Attorney-General Michaelia Cash and her NSW parliament counterpart, Mark Speakman, published a joint statement on 30 September promising the funds would go towards helping NSW’s stretched legal assistance sector cope with unprecedented demand amid COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has put significant pressure on vulnerable people throughout NSW and highlighted the critical need for access to free legal services,” Speakman said.

“I’m very thankful for the contribution of our dedicated legal assistance providers in delivering much-needed support for disadvantaged people, when so many are doing it tough.”

The investment is part of the National Legal Assistance Partnership Agreement 2020-25 (NLAP) between federal and state governments, which commenced on 1 July 2020 and will run for five years to assist legal aid services, community legal centres and Indigenous legal services.

President of the Law Society of NSW, Juliana Warner, said the legal profession had noticed dramatic uptick in demand for legal assistance resources amid COVID-19. She said the funding would play a critical role in assisting people to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has generated even greater demand for legal assistance resources, particularly in relation to domestic and family violence, credit matters, tenancy disputes, hardship applications and employment law,” President Warner said.

“Publicly funded legal assistance services such as Legal Aid are vital to ensure that some of the most vulnerable people in our community have access to legal support. For many it is the only way they can access legal support.

“The Law Society welcomes any initiatives to improve the availability of these services, including those that will be funded through the NLAP Agreement.”

The funding includes $39.3 million for Legal Aid NSW, community legal centres and other service providers to assist vulnerable women, with a focus on victims of domestic and family violence. Speakman, who is Minister for Prevention of Domestic and Sexual Violence as well as state Attorney-General, noted this was an area facing additional strain during the pandemic.

“I encourage providers to apply for funding to support victim-survivors of domestic and sexual violence, people in need of mental health services, and other disadvantaged groups grappling with financial stress that’s often intensified by COVID-19,” he said.

The funding will also provide $23.5 million for Legal Aid NSW to extend the Family Advocacy and Support Services (FASS) with new court locations and mental health supports, $16 million to support people with mental health conditions to access the justice system, and $12.2 million to assist workers experiencing sexual harassment or discrimination.

Legal Aid NSW CEO Brendan Thomas welcomed the allocation of $2.4 million for providers to expand Domestic Violence Units (DVUs), such as the Legal Aid Domestic Violence Unit, with dedicated mental health support and increased outreach to women in regional or remote areas. He said demand for DVU advice had more than doubled during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020: while the unit usually fields around 1000 calls each year, he reported it received more than 6000 in the 12 months to March 2021.

“Lockdowns are about staying home to be protected from COVID-19. But for the women we work with, home is not always a safe place, a fact that may have been exacerbated due to mandatory lockdowns and other necessary health restrictions,” Mr Thomas said.

“Our DVU is critical in helping victim-survivors seek protection orders, navigate the family law system, access support and safe housing, and seek financial counselling.”

For confidential advice, support and referrals, contact: 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), The NSW Domestic Violence Line (1800 65 64 63) or Men’s Referral Service (1300 766 491).