Community Legal Centre to be shuttered

Far West Community Legal Centre

The Far West Community Legal Centre Limited (FWCLC Ltd) is set to close by July 31 after its Board of Directors decided the organisation was no longer viable due to staff shortages and increasing compliance costs.

In a bid to save critical legal services, the Board is petitioning funding bodies to ensure family and domestic violence programs can continue to be delivered in the region, by transitioning programs to larger organisations that can better ensure their long-term viability.

The FWCLC was established in 2000, following a significant investment of local activism, and four services are currently delivered but are now under threat – the Far West Community Legal Centre, Warra Warra Legal Service, Staying Home Leaving Violence, and Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service.

Martin Bass, Chair of FWCLC, told the Truth, “despite long and intensive recruitment efforts, we have been unable to secure experienced solicitors or a Chief Executive Officer”.

“Without permanent staff in these key leadership roles, our ability to meet the needs of clients is compromised and it leaves our organisation at risk of being unable to meet statutory, funding and compliance obligations,” he noted.

Mr Bass emphasised that accreditation and compliance requirements apply indiscriminately to community legal centres across NSW.

“As a small stand-alone not-for-profit operating in a remote location, our inability to attract suitably qualified staff means it is extremely difficult to achieve and maintain the same operating standards as larger not-for-profits or similar services based in larger regional centres and urban areas.

“The Board has also identified a longstanding compliance issue that would require the organisation to restructure to the detriment of staff and clients, or take out new insurance that would come at a cost to service provision, so neither option is a good outcome for the people of the Far West,” he said.

Interim CEO, Lisa Braid, pointed out the Far West Community Legal Centre had not had a permanent Principal Solicitor since 2021, and Warra Warra Legal Service similarly has not been home to a permanent Principal Solicitor since 2019.

“Both services have been compromised by reliance on temporary staffing and been forced to close at various points due to the lack of senior solicitors,” Ms Braid said.

“Unfortunately, without its legal services, FWCLC is not a financially viable operation. Having exhausted all options, the Board has made the very difficult decision to cease service delivery and instead work with funding bodies to transition programs to larger organisations that can better ensure their long-term viability,” Ms Braid confirmed.

FWCLC board director David Alexander, who also is a former Chief Executive Officer of the North Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Service, says the chronic shortage of solicitors in the community legal sector was a country-wide issue.

He told the Truth, “lack of pay parity with government funded legal services and employment market constraints have seen the community legal sector pushed to crisis point in recent years, so until governments are willing to fund community legal centres at comparative rates and match other incentives such as housing, we will continue to see services struggle to stay viable.”

Fellow FWCLC director, John Harris, echoed Mr Alexander’s comments, while also expressing the need for the community to understand and support the Board’s decision.

“The last couple of years have been incredibly difficult for the organisation, and the Board has not reached this conclusion lightly.”

Legal Aid NSW has been contacted by the Board, which is advocating for the Far West Community Legal Centre to continue service delivery under the umbrella of a larger regional or urban-based community legal centre that can offer stable practice management supervision and a pool of solicitors to support on-ground service delivery.

Ms Braid confirmed preliminary discussions indicated there were several community legal centres that might have an interest in this type of arrangement.

Promisingly, similar arrangements have already been inked.

Warra Warra Legal Service’s legal practice was forced to close in November 2023 due to staff shortages, but a temporary arrangement has been put in place with Aboriginal Family Legal Services Queensland (Maruma-li-mari) to ensure services can begin this month.

The National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum, a peak body in its space, will be consulting with Aboriginal community representatives and elders across the Far West to consider options for the future of Warra Warra.

Other options being canvassed include a merger with another Aboriginal owned and controlled Family Violence Prevention Legal Service, or seeking funding to establish as a standalone service. The National Indigenous Australians Agency currently funds Warra Warra.

The NSW Department of Communities and Justice will decide on future arrangements for the ongoing delivery of Staying Home Leaving Violence in the Broken Hill and Wentworth/Dareton local government areas.

And while the current Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service’s funding agreement ends on June 30, Ms Braid says Legal Aid NSW has confirmed the service will be put to open tender on February 12.

Ms Braid says consolidation of its Staying Home Leaving Violence and Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service with an established domestic and family violence service provider within the region would be an ideal outcome for staff and clients.

“At the moment it is still business as usual for all services,” said Ms Braid, “and we will be working closely with funding bodies, new service providers and stakeholders over the coming six-months to ensure a seamless transition.

“Our interest is ensuring clients continue to receive high quality services and we aim to minimise any disruption.”

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