Victims of institutional child sex abuse in NSW may get little more than token reparation if proposed state laws go ahead, according to a Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre and the Greens.
The claim comes as hearings continue in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Angela Pollard, the centre manager of the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre, says she was warned by the NSW attorney-general last month that the centre’s funding could be at risk if it engages in any law reform critical of government.
‘The state government says we can’t lobby, we can’t campaign, we can’t act for activists,’ Ms Pollard said.
Greens MP David Shoebridge this week blasted plans by the O’Farrell government to slash victim compensation and remove all Legal Aid entitlements for civil claims by victims of child sexual abuse against governments or churches.
‘Cutting legal aid support for victims of abuse will only assist the powerful institutions that abused children in the past; this is a terrible betrayal of victims,’ he said.
‘This is a gift for the Catholic Church and those state authorities that failed to protect children in the first place.
‘As more survivors come forward, many living in poverty due to the ongoing impact of their abuse, Legal Aid should be directing more funds to support them, not less.’
Mr Shoebridge’s comments mirror those of Ms Pollard, who told Echonetdaily, ‘now take as an example a group of church-abuse survivors – when do they stop becoming clients and start becoming activists and lobbyists, because that’s exactly what happened to the Environmental Defenders Office; they were told they were acting for activists, but of course it was a group of people concerned about coal seam gas in their community, so that’s the risk we run’.
‘If we identify systemic problems we feel we really must proceed. We’re concerned about pressures on our centre but we feel in terms of our integrity and our current funding agreement that we’ll continue to proceed to do what we think we should do, that it’s our professional duty.’
Ms Pollard said it was the first time in the 40-year history of community legal centres that their funding has been threatened by ‘engaging in their usual activities’.
‘We have a joint funding agreement with the state and federal governments and it says in there that we shall lobby for law reform; they recognise that is what we do,’ she said.
‘Part of our job is working for clients from a socio-economically disadvantaged area. When we identify what we call systemic issues, so the system’s broken, then it’s perfectly legitimate for us to help any victims.
‘The problem is that the NSW attorney-general is clamping down on us, saying “you can only criticise those laws we let you criticise”.
‘It’s to be attached to all state government funding from July 1 [and] as I understand it, the government wants those guidelines attached to our joint funding agreement.
‘The federal finance minister Penny Wong is not keen on that and at the same time has sponsored legislation before parliament to stop governments from gagging community services for advocating on behalf of their clients.
‘We’ve had a look at this and we’re confident the work we do is to the benefit of our socio-economically disadvantaged clients,’ Ms Pollard said.
The chairperson of Community Legal Centres NSW, Anna Cody, said earlier this month that she was ‘gravely alarmed’ at the recent announcement to slash victim compensation payments, and in some cases to make those cuts retrospective.
‘Compensation payment for pain suffered is a symbolic recognition of a public wrong… a reduction in payments for victims of violence has detrimental effects on a victim’s ability to reclaim their life,’ Ms Cody said.
Rachael Martin, convenor of the group’s Victims Compensation Committee, said the NSW government’s disregard for the traumatic implications of the law changes for victims was ‘astonishing’.
‘The amendments fail to explicitly recognise the profound psychological harm done to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. For those victims caught by the new time limits, it sends the message that their traumatic experiences aren’t worth compensating,’ Ms Martin said.