NEW South Wales community legal centres have been warned not to engage in any law reform that is critical of government, or their funding could be at risk.
Staff fear the new restrictions could have profound ramifications for survivors of sexual abuse in the upcoming Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Assault, given the centres were set up to provide legal support to those who couldn't afford adequate legal representation.
Angela Pollard, the centre manager at the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre, said that while she was pleased sexual abuse survivors would now have access to a new federally-funded national legal advisory service auspiced through the existing centres, she feared a directive last week from the NSW Attorney-General's Department could prevent the centre supporting victims should the Commissioner discover significant government failings in the protection of children in care.
"This is the first time in the 40-year history of CLCs that funding is potentially threatened by CLCs engaging in their usual activities, which may include lobbying for law reform and changes to government policy," she said. "Just as the Environmental Defenders Office was under the blowtorch recently for their legitimate legal work with community groups objecting to coal seam gas, so may we find ourselves in a similar position.
"We need to be able to address systemic issues as well as provide individual support for clients, otherwise we may well find ourselves having another Royal Commission in 20 or 30 years time."
Ms Pollard said research showed survivors found it extremely difficult to re-tell their stories in the harsh nature of the criminal justice system, and that adequate and equitable representation was crucial to the success of the Royal Commission.
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