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Justice stuck in traffic

Briefs

Cite as: December 2012 86 (12) LIJ, p.16

The LIV believes changes made to the criteria for receiving Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) legal representation has blocked access to justice for many Victorians charged with driving offences.

The changes, introduced on 1 October this year, tightened eligibility guidelines for those charged in the Magistrates’ Court with traffic offences under the Road Safety Act 1986.

Historically, the test on VLA eligibility was based on whether a conviction was likely to result in a term of imprisonment for any person charged with a traffic offence. Now a person only qualifies if they have a diagnosed psychiatric or intellectual disability or an acquired brain injury and a conviction is likely to result in an immediate or suspended prison sentence.

They also must be receiving services from an approved mental health service or be registered under the Disability Act 2006.

The LIV has previously called on VLA to suspend the changes until proper consultation can take place and alternatives be considered.

LIV President Michael Holcroft said people who do not qualify for legal aid funding were being “left on their own” while only some were receiving “limited access” to a duty lawyer on the morning of their hearing.

“VLA describes [the changes] as a ‘guideline amendment’, the LIV calls it a denial of access to justice. Duty lawyers are also already under immense pressure to deal with a wide range of cases on a daily basis,” he said.

“There will be no time or opportunity to properly investigate potential defences or to obtain plea material that may be significant in persuading a magistrate that there is a realistic alternative to imprisonment.”

VLA summary crime program manager Vincenzo Caltabiano said the focus on people with a psychiatric or intellectual disability or an acquired brain injury recognised their vulnerability in the criminal justice system.

“Representation by the duty lawyer will ensure that other accused facing serious penalties will continue to be appropriately represented,” he said.

“We have finite funds and demand for assistance in traffic matters needs to be balanced against the other serious legal problems where we are called upon for help.”

Mr Holcroft said arguments that the changes would save money was a “false economy” as they may actually result in more people being sent to “an already over-stretched” prison system.

He said there would also be an increased number of appeals to the County Court and more appeal bail applications in the Magistrates’ Court.

“I think LIV members will agree that this amendment does not make sense.”

However, the VLA guidelines were also amended to allow for assistance where a person, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, had a meritorious appeal against a prison sentence.

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