Bad legislation likely in NSW if push to gag CLCs goes ahead – ALA

24th May 2013

Badly formed laws, which have the potential to destroy many vulnerable people’s lives, are more likely to pass through NSW Parliament, if a push by the O’Farrell government to gag community legal centres from speaking out against injustice is allowed to go ahead.

The NSW Legal Assistance Funding Principals limit Community Legal Centres from lobbying on law reform and policy issues as well as public campaigning and advocacy – these will silence those who are in a position to advocate on behalf of the underprivileged, disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our communities.

This push comes just after a joint letter was sent from NSW Community Legal Centres to the United Nations highlighting the injustice of a victims compensation bill, passed last Wednesday in the NSW Legislative Assembly and due to be tabled in the Legislative Council on Tuesday.

The Victims Rights and Support Bill 2013, in its original form, reduced the amounts of compensation able to be claimed by some of Australia’s most vulnerable people – victims of childhood sexual assault and unemployed victims of domestic violence.

The community legal centres appealed, along with other advocacy groups, in a public letter to the UN last week asking it to intervene on both human rights grounds and Australia’s international obligations. Proposed amendments have been introduced this week to raise the caps and revise clauses regarding limitation periods including the retrospectivity of the legislation following significant lobbying over the unfairness of the originally proposed Bill.

The Bill and proposed amendments have yet to receive assent.

“It is an important part of access to justice, that lawyers at the coal face of human distress, are able to speak out on poorly drafted law without fear of losing funding,” ALA spokesman, Ramina Kambar, said.

“The NSW Government could well be opening itself up to increased scrutiny if it introduces, and attempts to enforce, such regulations to gag more than 60 community legal centres in NSW,” Ms Kambar said.

This flies in the face of the Gillard Government recently introducing the Not for Profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Bill 2013 last week to ban gag clauses in Federal Government contracts with the non-for-profit sector. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that no future Federal Government can stop groups from advocating against Commonwealth policies on behalf of the community.

“So why is NSW, as a State, deviating from what is recognised at a Federal level as having significant importance?” she said.

“These kinds of bullying tactics by the State government are unacceptable and would serve to significantly limit freedom of expression and freedom of political communication, and if challenged, would surely be in contravention of the right of freedom of expression as set out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),” she said.

“By gagging CLCs from participation in law reform, the government is essentially saying that it is not interested in hearing about where people have fallen through the cracks”.

CLCs advise on everything from tenancy to discrimination, domestic violence, employment, environmental, youth, family, civil and criminal law. Small credit and debt matters, neighbour disputes, immigration advice, children’s court assistance, mediation, outreach legal services and Indigenous justice, also all fall under their umbrella.

"These centres are the voice for some of Australia’s most disadvantaged – 80% of those who access their services earn under $26,000 a year. They do not have the power and the influence of the Gina Rhineharts or the Tom Waterhouses of this world to have their voices heard. They depend on the CLCs to be that voice.

"They provide a legal and emotional lifeline to the most needy members of our community and they must be encouraged to speak out about injustice not have their mouths wired shut to protect the government’s reputation.

"After all, we do still live in a democracy, don’t we?”

Tags: Compensation NSW Legal Aid and CLCs Victims of crime