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Aboriginal Legal Service moves to Coffs Harbour

Geoff Helisma |

The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) has confirmed it will relocate its Grafton office to Coffs Harbour; a move the ALS says “will not affect the current service delivery in the Clarence Valley area”.

“The ALS will continue to provide services to Grafton and Maclean courts and the community,” an ALS media releases stated.

The statement followed a recent meeting, which discussed Clarence Valley Council’s (CVC) plea to maintain the Grafton service.

At the December CVC meeting, councillors unanimously resolved to write to Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion, NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Sarah Mitchell, Member for Page Kevin Hogan and Member for Clarence Chris Gulaptis, “objecting to the [office’s] closure”.

More importantly, councillors “request[ed] that the Australian and NSW governments provide funding to ensure that the Grafton office of the ALS continues to function as before, and to fund field officer(s) for the Coffs Harbour area”.

However, the ALS’s chair, Bunja Smith, said: “The board’s decision to establish a new office in Coffs Harbour is evidence-based and follows a comprehensive review of localised need, demand, capacity and resources, to provide representation services in the courts of Coffs Harbour, Grafton and Maclean.”

The ALS said Coffs Harbour is a regional “hub … where demands for our legal and support services are critical”, and also the location of Family and Community Services.

Significantly, though, the move is described by the ALS as the “most economically viable use of existing resources”, due to “ongoing funding constraints”.

Mayor Jim Simmons said he was “personally disgusted” with the move and that “a review of the ALS’s funding was in order”.

He said he “believes the NSW Government should step up to the plate and contribute funding”.

At the time of writing, NSW Assistant Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell had written to the mayor, telling him that ALS funding “is the responsibility of the federal government”.

“Unfortunately, Aboriginal Affairs NSW does not have a grant program to support this type of request,” she wrote.

“ALS is an independent community organisation.

“As such, all decisions around staffing are made by the organisation’s leadership.”

She encouraged CVC to continue to engage with the ALS and the federal government “to resolve your concerns”.

At the time of writing, the federal government had not yet responded to CVC’s request, nor had Mr Gulaptis or Mr Hogan.

The mayor also held concerns for ALS employees.

“It’s a big loss to lose those positions in Grafton and there is the effect on the employees,” he said.

Federal Labor candidate Patrick Deegan attended the meeting, too, saying in a media release: “Whilst I believe the people of Coffs Harbour should have a high quality ALS this should not be at the expense of the Grafton and Clarence communities”.

“It is distressing to hear that since then the board has decided to move the service to Coffs Harbour and employees have had to make a decision on their future employment in such a hurry,” he said.

“I agree with the board that there is inadequate funding of the ALS; that is why I am working with shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfuss.

“I am hopeful there will be good news for Aboriginal Legal services, in general, in the lead up to the election.”