Nation’s legal services reaching homeless service crisis levels: ACOSS Report

13 August 2012

Australia’s housing and homelessness services are stretched and unable to meet growing demand for services, but are closely followed by community legal services which are facing chronic underfunding, longer waiting lists, and turning away greater numbers of people, according to the ACOSS Australian Community Sector Survey 2012 released today.

The survey, completed by 665 agencies from around the country, provides the most comprehensive picture of how the non-government community services and welfare sector is travelling. This year the report reveals the extent of the crisis engulfing the nation’s community legal services.

“About 73% of legal services around the country reported not being about to meet demand for services, surpassed only by the problems we know are facing housing and homeless services,” said ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie.

“There is no doubt that housing and homelessness services remain the area of highest need in our community, with 81% reporting they simply cannot meet demand. Despite this there is some good news with a drop in the number of services actually turning people away.

“This is evidence that investment in areas such as the social housing initiative have made a positive impact on services. But there are far too many people being turned away – a total of 20,496 over the year or 56 people each day. Nearly 3 in 5 agencies reported housing and homelessness as the ‘high need’ services that clients are missing out on.

“There remain clear areas of unmet demand and an urgent need for sustained investment over time to address homelessness adequately. We must continue our efforts to expand the supply of affordable housing, and to ensure homelessness services are adequately funded.

“The other headline from the report is the depth of crisis facing community legal services. A record 11,693 (or 14%) people presenting for help were turned away over the past year of reporting. They tell us they’ve had to restrict services to clients resulting in increasing waiting lists.

“This is particularly concerning since community legal centres work with partners in legal aid commissions and Indigenous legal services to help people who cannot afford a lawyer. Over 80% of the people they help receive under $26,000 a year in income. These are people who do not qualify for legal aid and seeking help with civil and family law issues, such as evictions, tenancy, debts, family violence, dismissals and employment issues and relationship breakdown.

“We know that Australian Government legal aid funding per capita has fallen by about 22 per cent in real terms since 1997. Even the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department has noted that 98 per cent of legal aid recipients receive an income that could be considered below the poverty line. This leaves much of Australia unable to afford legal representation.

“ACOSS’ Report is further evidence of this gross underfunding and the devastating impacting it’s having – not only on services but also on the people they are there to assist, some of the most disadvantaged groups in our community.

“The findings vindicate calls by Community Law Australia (a coalition of community legal centres from across the nation) for an urgent injection of Commonwealth funds to ensure all Australians can access a basic level of legal assistance,” Dr Goldie said.

Other services reporting high levels of unmet need include: Mental health (57%); Domestic violence and sexual assault support (52%); Youth Services (46%); and Emergency Relief (45%). See key findings below.


Read the Australian Community Sector Survey 2012 National Report in HTML format >>

Media Contact:
Fernando de Freitas – 0419 626 155

Summary of key findings

Housing the highest need
• Nearly 3 in 5 respondents listed housing among ‘high need’ services of clients.
• 81% say they cannot meet demand for their services.
• 63% of respondents said waiting times for this service have increased.
• There were 303,713 instances of service provision but 20,496 instances (8%) of people turned away or 56 people turned away each day from services responding to this survey.

Legal services in strife
Legal service providers were the second highest service type to report difficulties in meeting demand.
• 73% could not meet demand for services.
• Most community legal services reported unmet demand, underfunding, restricted services to clients, and increasing waiting lists.
• There were 119,886 instances of service provision, but 11,693 (or 14%) were turned away.

Domestic violence and sexual assault support services feel the strain
• 52% reported they could not keep up with demand.
• 68% of respondents reported that that costs of this service exceeded revenue.
• 66% required staff/volunteers to work longer hours.
• 52% said waiting times for this service have increased.
• 139,179 people received services from survey respondents but 4,322 people (or 3%) were turned away.

Emergency relief services feeling the pinch
• 45% of services reported emergency relief services as an area of high need.
• Over 80% of emergency relief services had to target services more tightly to meet demand.
• Three-quarters of respondents said costs exceeded revenue for emergency relief.
• 499,743 people received emergency relief services, but 3,747 people (6%) were turned away.

Mental health anguish
Mental health was second only to homelessness/housing as the area of highest need, nominated by 57% of services.

Youth Services in trouble
• 46% could not meet demand.
• 78,100 persons received services but 2,834 people (or 5%) were turned away by respondents.
• 60% of services reported that costs of this service exceeded revenue.
• 70% reported requiring staff/volunteers to work longer hours to meet demand.

NOTE: Turnaway percentages exclude outlier numbers, for example reports of 0 or 50,000 turnaways.

About the survey
The Australian Community Sector Survey (ACSS) is the only annual national survey collecting data about the non-government, non-profit community services and welfare sector. This sector is a major provider of the community services that most of us rely on at some point in our lives, but which are particularly important to people on low incomes. The ACSS presents the findings of the ACOSS annual survey of community services across Australia. The survey was conducted between April and June 2012 and covers the period from 1 July 2010 – 30 June 2011. A total of 665 agencies completed the survey, responding on issues relating to service provision, income and expenditure, and operational, policy, and workforce issues for the community services sector. >>Click here to see the 2012 survey questions (PDF).