Legal aid groups are warning that a proposed funding cut of $42 million for indigenous legal services will only lead to more people in jails.
6 Sep 2013 - 4:37 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 8:06 PM

Cutting legal aid funding for indigenous people may increase their over-representation in Australian jails, the coalition has been warned.

It has announced $42 million of proposed cuts to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS), which represents a fifth of overall funding for the sector.

And although Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has declared his wish to be the first indigenous affairs prime minister, the cuts would be a major blow that would likely entrench disadvantage even further, Community Law Australia says.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-indigenous Australians, spokeswoman Carolyn Bond said in a statement.

"Cutting off access to free legal help will not work to address this problem," she said.

"Indeed, with the knowledge that the coalition plans to restore funding to Native Title respondents at the same time as cutting free legal help for (indigenous) people, it presents a very chilling picture for an already marginalised group with high legal need."

Services under threat include the provision of legal advice, referrals, writing of letters and completion of forms, and attendance at court.

Oxfam Australia says the cuts could lead to more Aboriginal people being caught up in the criminal justice system.

"Given Mr Abbott's longstanding support for addressing indigenous disadvantage, and the positive elements of the coalition's indigenous policy, there is a question as to whether this is another policy mistake," said Oxfam Australia CEO Dr Helen Szoke.

"These cuts would make it harder for the coalition to meet its commitment to reduce incarceration rates, and also bring into question whether the move would save money in the long run."

In the past decade, there's been a 50 per cent rise in the rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, compared to five per cent for the rest of the population, Dr Szoke said.

"These services are already vastly underfunded and they play a critical role by providing access to culturally appropriate legal services."