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LIV lobbying leads to legal aid win

News

Cite as: Jan/Feb 2011 85(1/2) LIJ, p.32

The LIV has helped secure a better deal for lawyers from Victoria Legal Aid.

Private practitioners performing legal aid work will be better paid this year thanks in part to the LIV.

Protracted discussions between Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) and the LIV, Victorian Bar, the courts and prosecutorial agencies have resulted in a package of new measures.

The package includes new fee arrangements in summary and indictable crime, the abolition of the proposed whole of job fee and the relaxation of the “means test”, which should increase privately assigned grants of aid across civil, family and criminal law.

On 20 December, VLA chair John Howie wrote to then LIV president Steven Stevens to advise him the body would add $4.1 million to practitioners’ ongoing remuneration.

“In light of [LIV] submissions, VLA has decided not to impose a whole of job fee and would instead increase current item fees applicable throughout the scale by 9 per cent,” Mr Howie wrote.

The fee changes were scheduled to come into effect on 18 January this year.

Mr Howie said the fees would be indexed on an annual basis, commencing 1 July this year. The indexation will match the state government inflator, the annual percentage increase on VLA’s base funding, which is currently 2 per cent.

The new criminal law fees will also be backdated to 1 July 2010, with VLA promising a lump payment to be processed in May.

In November the LIV rejected VLA’s proposed whole of job fee as “completely inadequate”, claiming it would force many practitioners to work at a loss for undertaking legal aid work.

LIV CEO Michael Brett Young said private practitioners would be happy that VLA had chosen to remove the whole of job fee for a more equitable approach and abandon the proposal to limit instructing fees for solicitors in criminal trials.

However, he said there were still several matters of concern for the LIV and its members.

“We are concerned that the 9 per cent increase does not take solicitors back to the levels of a decade ago and that some attendance at court will still not be paid for under this proposal,” he said.

Other areas of concern include the standardisation of the guilty and not-guilty merits threshold, the continued non-payment for attendance at summary case conferences, finer details of the “whole of job fee” for bail applications and the new reading fee for solicitors in complicated cases.

The LIV and the Victorian Bar have been campaigning for increased legal aid funding for a number of years. In November 2008, members of the Victorian legal profession rallied outside the County Court to demand an increase in legal aid fees.

The rally was sparked by LIV research that found legal aid fees, traditionally set at 80 per cent of fees charged to private clients, had fallen to as low as 15 per cent and, on average, did not reach 50 per cent.

The LIV held a series of meetings with VLA last year and the 20 December announcement prompted the LIV to postpone industrial actions planned for early this year, pending further discussions.

Mr Brett Young said he understood VLA was working under financial constraints and the LIV now wanted to work closely with VLA to make submissions to government to provide more funding for private practitioners.

Mr Howie said VLA would be “enhancing access to justice” by enabling more people charged with more serious offences and those confronted with intractable family law disputes to qualify for aid on financial grounds.

He also said the means test would be relaxed by increasing the “home equity” threshold from $100,000 to $300,000.

“The VLA board is acutely conscious of the commitment of the private profession towards the scheme of legal aid,” Mr Howie wrote in the 20 December letter.

“The board is also acutely conscious of persistent pressures to help more people, to deliver more services and to engage with practitioners who practise in civil law, family courts and Children’s Court.

“The interest of legally aided clients would not be advanced without their involvement and I look forward to a continuing dialogue on ways to advance good practice and delay reduction, upon which successful overtures for substantial additional investment in defence practitioner fees must be based.”

However, he said VLA was still of the view that a whole of job fee was the best model “to advocate in defence practitioner fees and to demonstrate how the efficiency and efficacy of the summary jurisdiction might be improved”.

Mr Brett Young congratulated the LIV’s Legal Policy & Practice Department and Criminal Law Section for working “tirelessly to fight for a better deal for lawyers”.

“The results show that the fight has been worthwhile,” he said.

To view the full criminal law fee structure changes, see www.legalaid.vic.gov.au/pracfees.htm.

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