NATIVE title claims across the country will be thrown into "legal chaos" next year.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon axed funding for a 16-year-old scheme that provides legal representation for pastoralists, attracting the ire of politicians and farmers groups, The Australian reports.
As part of budget cuts in a "tight fiscal environment", Ms Roxon will stop from January 1 the Native Title Respondent Funding Scheme, which provides lawyers and native title officers to three pastoral industry bodies.
The government will continue funding indigenous claimants.
The NT Cattlemen's Association, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA and AgForce Queensland have been desperately lobbying the Minister, saying the cessation of funding would mean native title claims will end up in protracted court cases instead of being settled by consent.
The National Farmers Federation also argues the legal and court costs to the commonwealth will be "far greater than the current expenditure" on the scheme if it ends and its demise would be ``legal chaos''.
"(Individual pastoralists) will have to decide whether to withdraw, seek other legal representation or, most likely, muddle through being self-represented," says NFF chief executive Matt Linnegar.
"Without the funding requested in this submission, NFF considers that there will be legal chaos.''
Independent MP Rob Oakeshott raised the issue in parliament yesterday, asking Julia Gillard in question time to clarify the legal assistance cuts given they could "clog'' the native title court process.
But the Prime Minister defended the move, announced in the 2011 budget, saying it was the government's "anticipation'' the funding cut would not "equate to respondents disengaging'' from the native title process.
"We are talking about many respondents that are commercially viable entities . . . being able to deal with native title through their ordinary business costs,'' she said.
Federal Court judge John Logan has made comments on the value of the legal aid for pastoralists, saying in an August judgment that it had done much to ``dispel the tensions and anxiety (among pastoralists) . . . to result in the efficient progress and consensual resolution of a native title claim''.
The NFF says in a submission to Ms Roxon there will be 187 native claims, with 1324 pastoralist respondents in January when the funding is due to end.
The peak body has urged the government to extend the scheme, providing $2.2 million until the end of 2014, which will ensure that most native title claims will be settled.
But in a letter sent by Ms Roxon and seen by The Australian, the minister rejects the plea and says it will provide no more money for the scheme.
"We are operating in a tight fiscal environment and the Australian government cannot maintain previous levels of funding for the Native Title Respondent Funding Scheme,'' Ms Roxon writes.
"In accordance with the principles of the access to justice framework, we need to ensure that limited funds are directed to those most in need of assistance."
Read more at The Australian