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'Unsustainable': SA Aboriginal legal service's budget plea

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Lawyers at South Australia’s pro bono Aboriginal legal practice are juggling over 150 clients each at one time, prompting calls for the state government to provide funding in next week’s budget to help the organisation retain staff and keep up with “horrendous” demand.

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Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement principal legal officer Christopher Charles told InDaily that nine criminal lawyers had quit the pro bono organisation in 2021-22 to pursue more competitive salaries within the government or private sectors.

He said the “unacceptable rate of attrition” had prompted the legal aid service to stop taking on new cases in Port Augusta over Christmas, as it didn’t have any qualified lawyers to manage the files.

The Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM) is an Aboriginal community-controlled legal practice that offers free legal aid specifically to First Nations communities.

It receives approximately $33 million over five years from the federal government, with about 80 per cent of its budget used to pay the 30 lawyers that it employs across the state.

But Charles said ALRM was unable to keep up with pay increases provided at equivalent legal aid organisations, as government funding had remained largely static over the past 20 years.

The organisation becomes unsustainable when we’re losing people just as they’re capable of doing the work properly

He said the organisation also struggled to attract lawyers to live and work in regional areas, meaning it had to spend more on travel expenses to service the country courts.

“One of the reasons we’re able to cope and continue is because we have lots of junior lawyers,” he said.

“We can’t pay them at the same rates as other parts in the sector, like the Crown, the police and those sorts of places, but they get very, very good experience here.

“We’re constantly being juniorised and we’re constantly having to train up baby lawyers basically and we’re losing all the experienced people just at the point when they’re becoming useful to us.

“The organisation becomes unsustainable when we’re losing people just as they’re capable of doing the work properly.”

Charles said one of his experienced solicitors was currently juggling a caseload of 150 clients at the Elizabeth Magistrates Court, as well as being responsible for matters in the Ceduna and Yalata Magistrates Courts, as there were not enough qualified lawyers to share the load.

He described the situation as “outrageous” and a “constant cause for concern”.

“We’re most concerned about the occupational health and safety issues, let alone the question of risk management when someone is carrying so many files,” he said.

“We have good management systems, but we don’t like putting people under this kind of continual pressure.

“When you’re in court all day and then you’re taking 10 or 20 files home at night to read up in preparation for tomorrow, the work-life balance is what worries me.”

Asked how much demand ALRM was currently experiencing, Charles said: “horrendous is the short answer”.

We will not allow anyone to provide a sub-par service, which is one of the most important non-negotiables here

He said lawyers were under increased pressure due to the backlog of cases that were unable to go through the courts over the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For example, the APY Lands circuit for very good reasons to do with quarantine had to be abandoned for two circuits, which was I think (in) January and March,” he said.

“It’s on again either this week or next week and it’s going to be horrendous lists, absolutely horrendous lists.

“It just becomes very difficult to maintain the service, but we will not allow anyone to provide a sub-par service, which is one of the most important non-negotiables here.”

In a submission to the state government ahead of the release of its budget next Thursday, the SA Law Society called for an inquiry to be conducted into the demand for Aboriginal legal services across the state.

It asked the state government to commit to providing funding to ALRM – on top of what is already provided by the Commonwealth – to ensure the organisation keeps up with demand.

ALRM CEO Chris Larkin said state government funding would “go a long way in terms of wage parity”.

“We would certainly have the ability to offer people more permanency and funding without sort of the one-off stuff,” he said.

“It would be a huge bonus for us to be saying to people, ‘you’ve got a future if you’re staying here and you will be able to get a mortgage like everyone that you went through law with’.

“We clearly have a career progression available to people if they’re able to stay long enough to do it.”

InDaily asked Attorney-General and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher for a response, but was redirected to the Attorney-General’s Department.

A spokesperson from the department said the state government had “tremendous respect” for ALRM and it already provided funding to the organisation to deliver programs such as the Aboriginal justice advocacy service.

“The state government will work constructively with the legal assistance sector, including ALRM, to improve the supports available to Indigenous South Australians through the legal sector,” the spokesperson said.

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