The Australian federal government has launched a tender process for firms interested in providing indigenous legal aid services in Victoria and western Australia.
It is the first time that government-funded legal services provided to Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders in Australia have been opened up to private law firms.
The tendering process will progressively replace the existing indigenous legal aid body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Legal Services, with appointed advisers in each of the eight states and territories over the next financial year.
But critics of the controversial new scheme argue that the introduction of a competitive element to the provision of indigenous legal services could result in the exclusion of some clients.
This fear has been further propelled by the fact that tenderers are not required to be indigenous organisations or hire indigenous staff.
Australian Attorney General Philip Ruddock said Victoria and western Austr-alia would be the first states for which requests for tenders would be released, followed by Queensland in March 2005.
The government has committed A$120m (£50m) over three years for the services, with the selected providers delivering services from 1 July.
The deadline for lodging tenders is 17 December.