The native title process in WA is on the verge of chaos as pastoralists and fishermen threaten to walk away over Federal Government funding cuts.

Industry groups said unless hundreds of pastoralists and fishermen opted out of native title deliberations, some could face individual legal bills of more than $100,000.

There are about 100 native title claims over 510 pastoral leases in WA, with 85 claims in mediation under instructions from the Native Title Tribunal or the Federal Court. The fishing, pearling and aquaculture industries in WA are dealing with more than 30 claims.

The Government will continue to fund the legal costs of native title claimants but end funding for pastoralists and fishermen who respond to title claims from January 1.

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has refused to back down on the decision to scrap the native title respondent funding scheme despite intense lobbying from the National Farmers’ Federation and peak agricultural groups in WA, Queensland and the NT.

The scheme, which has operated for the past 20 years, has an annual budget of $1.5 million. Until now it has allowed native title claims impacting on multiple lease holders to be dealt with as one by industry appointed legal representatives.

The WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association said farmers would now have to act as individuals in any native title proceedings, exposing them to huge legal bills and clogging up the Federal Court. “This is an absolute injustice, not only to those pastoralists and their families, who will be forced to pay their own legal costs, but also for the entire native title process,” PGA WA president Rob Gillam said.

“The native title process is supposed to be about establishing coexistence between the pastoral industry and native title holders through mediation, rather than litigation.

“How do you facilitate co-existence when one party is no longer allowed to come to the table when their funding is cut off.” WA Fishing Industry Council chief executive Mark Tucek said fishermen had been left in the same predicament.

“The same concerns exist for people in the fishing industry, pearling and crown land aquaculture,” he said.

A spokesman for Ms Roxon said the Government no longer believed taxpayers’ money should be provided to farmers or fishermen for native title matters, which it regarded as ordinary business costs.

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