The Federal Government has offered a $21 million lifeline to Aboriginal legal services. 

Aboriginal legal services in Australia are facing a funding crisis and are struggling to keep operations afloat. 

While a recent $21 million injection has been provided, the head of one of these services, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), claims it falls far short of what is needed. 

John Paterson, CEO of NAAJA, highlights that despite handling “enormous” caseloads, lawyers at NAAJA are among the lowest paid in the country. 

The demand for legal services is surging, driven primarily by a rise in family violence cases.

In regional New South Wales, the Aboriginal Legal Service has suspended operations in 13 local courts due to a workload crisis. Meanwhile, in Queensland, chronic underfunding has led to the suspension of some services since April.

Although the $21 million one-off payment, announced by federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, has been welcomed, Mr Paterson says that the original request was closer to $250 million. 

The funding is to be distributed among all states and territories by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), the sector's peak body. 

While NATSILS chair Karly Warner appreciates the funding, she says it is a “bandaid measure” that will only help keep the lights on. 

She points out that demand for Aboriginal Legal Services has increased by up to 100 per cent in the past five years, while core funding from the Commonwealth has decreased in real terms. 

This situation is expected to result in continued service freezes and negative outcomes for Indigenous Australians, such as unjust incarceration and separated families.

The federal budget allocated $99 million for a ‘First Nations Justice Package’ last year, which included $13.5 million for legal services nationwide, but these funds have yet to be released. 

Mr Paterson says that even after the $21 million is divided among states and territories, further cuts to legal services are inevitable.