Drive through the Yarra Valley on an autumn day and you would think the locals are a fortunate bunch who can easily access yarra valley wine and appreciate the rural scenery all day.
Not always. The Yarra Valley area has pockets of socially disadvantaged families amidst the bush-covered hills and quickly gentrifying towns, intensified by geographical seclusion.
Now locals are fretting because the only local legal centre, which offers complimentary legal assistance, is dealing with a potential closure in July, when it will lose $240,000 in federal financing.
The centre’s yearly budget is approximately $300,000. It’s not the only community legal centre in this predicament. Across Victoria, about $3 million will be lost from community legal centres in July, including the Women’s Legal Service and the Customer Action Law Centre.
The Yarra Ranges Community Legal Centre, hid behind the primary street of Healesville, was developed just three years ago as a part of the Eastern Community Legal Centre.
About half its clients are women escaping family violence. Real estate and homelessness assistance is another primary use for the centre. Over the previous two years it has offered legal advice to about 500 people and legal education to the exact same number again.
But without more money, it will have to close, says Eastern Community Legal Centre head Michael Smith.
“It takes substantial financial investment to set up a service like this and a long time for the neighbourhood to feel it will satisfy their needs, they have embraced it,” Smith states.
Regional resident Kim utilised the service after she left a violent relationship and felt entirely overwhelmed with the processes of going through court proceedings
Having a local service made such a difference. She says that travelling to Ringwood to look for help would have taken all day on public transport, and would have made it challenging to get her children from school.
The service made telephone calls and appointments, and arranged for a responsibility legal representative to represent her when she needed to go to court. “To lose a service like that would be definitely detrimental to the Yarra Valley,” she states.
Ladies residing in rural areas such as the yarra valley, and escaping family violence from partners who often have access to guns, has been a recurring event, states centre director Anita Koochew.
Along with legal recommendations, the centre has offered a shower for people who are homeless throughout the redevelopment of the local community health centre.
The Yarra Ranges is the largest of Melbourne’s local government locations, with a population of nearly 145,000, including a growing Aboriginal population.
Nationally, community legal centres are facing a 30% decrease in federal financing (through the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance) in July.
Legal advocates have asked for an appeal on these financing cuts and an injection of $200 million into the extended community legal sector.
A spokeswoman for Attorney-General George Brandis stated even in a “resource constrained” environment, the federal government would offer more than $1.6 billion for legal aid, neighbourhood legal centres and Indigenous legal support in between 2015 and 2020.
The spokeswoman stated Commonwealth funding for the Eastern Community Legal Centre – which runs the Yarra Ranges centre – had actually increased by more than 400% since 2010.