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Xenophon commits legal funds as service pleas for justice


SA Best leader Nick Xenophon has committed to recurrent public funding to co-ordinate pro bono legal services for people in need, as a key not-for-profit warns an investment shortfall looms as “a serious and ongoing challenge to the viability of our organisation”.

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Legal service JusticeNet SA is writing to major players ahead of the state election pleading for an injection of recurrent funding, with executive director Tim Graham warning “there’s a real question mark” over the not-for-profit’s future.

He told InDaily both Labor and Liberal parties had traditionally been “supportive of the work we do… but the history has been they just aren’t ready to cough up and make an investment”.

“They haven’t seen fit to support us in any way financially on a systematic basis,” he said.

Billing itself as “the primary gateway for coordinated pro bono legal services in SA”, JusticeNet SA is designed as a ‘safety net’ service providing free legal help to charitable organisations and low-income and disadvantaged individuals.

“We provide a very important safety net, and we do that by leveraging an enormous amount of volunteer hours – but it’s our core operating costs that we need help with,” Graham said.

“Interstate there are similar organisations to us [that] all have access to recurrent funding – essentially state government funding – but not here in SA, and that’s an issue for us… it means we’ve had to be very nimble, we’ve relied a lot on our own fundraising efforts, but essentially the organisation lives hand to mouth [and] we have to seriously consider our future.”

JusticeNet has benefitted from various one-off State Government and other grants, with a Law Foundation SA grant enough to see them through until mid-year, but “after that there’s a real question mark”.

“We rely on fundraising and one-off grants… and that always means we’re in that precarious position, and that means our clients aren’t getting that level of service we’d be able to provide to them if we had that level of certainty,” Graham said.

“It needs a decision by Government to invest in something new on a recurrent basis, and there’s just a real reticence to do that… we’ve been pushing them but haven’t had any luck so far.”

JusticeNet is seeking $120,000 a year in public funding, but insists from that investment “we are able to leverage, conservatively, about $2 million worth of legal help [and] about 8,500 hours of legal help”.

“Last year we worked with about 340 lawyers who volunteer – they donate about 30 hours each.”

Xenophon, a lawyer by training who still owns his own firm, said the funding request was a no-brainer as part of a broader investment in the state’s justice system – with SA Best set to unveil a legal policy in coming days.

“Yes, they need recurrent funding,” he said of JusticeNet.

“There’s a huge chasm in this state in terms of people having access to justice, and JusticeNet helps people breach that gap.

“Basically Justice Net’s proposal seems eminently sensible… their role should be expanded not contracted.

“What they do to procure legal advice for people that otherwise would have no hope of legal representation in complex cases is very valuable, and [$120,000] is a very small price to pay as an insurance policy against people being dudded.”

Asked if he would commit to the funds, he said: “I’m happy to lock myself in with things like that, that make a big difference.”

Funding for JusticeNet is among the state Law Society’s election wishlist priorities. Along with a demand that the state’s share of funding to SA Community Legal Centres be increased to at least 40 per cent of the total, the society has called for “a commitment to an ongoing budget contribution to the core operating costs of JusticeNet SA”.

Attorney-General John Rau told InDaily in a statement the organisation was “an important part of SA’s network of legal services” and “the Government is open to discussing a funding model with JusticeNet SA, including suitable ongoing evaluation and audit”.

Shadow Attorney-General Vickie Chapman said she wanted to review funding across a range of legal services, arguing current government expenditure was assigned on the basis of “cherry picking recipients”.

“We have to review all that… we’ll look at the pro bono operators in this space – there are a couple of agencies that make provision for this,” she said.

“We’ll review it but we recognise they play a role and it’s an important one… we have no intention of cutting them off.”

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