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Victoria gets sliver of bigger legal aid pie

News

Cite as: (2004) 78(7) LIJ, p. 28

Leaders of the legal profession are disappointed with the federal government’s legal aid offering to Victoria unveiled in the federal Budget.

Victoria will get less than $1 million a year from an extra $100 million in federal legal aid funding announced in the 11 May federal Budget.

Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock unveiled a $599 million package for federal legal aid that will fund the next four-year agreement between the federal government and the states and territories.

The agreement was scheduled to begin on 1 July 2004, although no new agreement had been signed at the time of writing.

The $100 million increase over four years comprises a $48 million boost through indexation and $52 million in new funding.

Mr Ruddock described the funding increase as a significant commitment to help people who could not afford legal representation and called on states and territories to increase their own legal aid funding.

He said the new funding levels contained a component to assist legal aid commissions to pay a minimum rate of $120 an hour to solicitors undertaking federal family law matters.

The funding will also assist legal aid commissions to bring hourly rates for veterans’ matters to the same rates as those paid for family law matters in all states and territories.

However, the Law Institute and Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) have attacked the uneven distribution of the extra funds.

VLA managing director Tony Parsons said Victoria fared terribly in the latest federal funding breakdown.

Victoria was granted an extra $900,000 for the 2004/05 financial year – an increase of 3.5 per cent.

Mr Parsons said Victoria’s increase was the worst of any legal aid commission and paled in comparison to the 17 per cent increase granted to Queensland.

“It is the first increase in commonwealth funding we have received since the cuts were imposed in 1996 and brings our commonwealth funding to the level it was in 1991,” Mr Parsons said.

“Queensland’s funding now exceeds Victorian funding by $1.6 million, notwithstanding that their population is 22 per cent less.”

Queensland will get $30.3 million in federal legal aid funding next financial year compared to $28.7 million for Victoria. This is despite Victoria conducting about 10,000 litigation cases, compared to about 7000 performed by Queensland, which also conducts another 3000 dispute resolution cases.

“It’s not just because it means it’s going to be a bad year for Victoria next year, but this offer sets the level of funding for the next four years.

“It means that the disadvantaged in the community will know this offer means access to justice is going to continue to be inadequate for the long term.”

Institute CEO John Cain said the legal aid funding increase for Victoria was “very disappointing”.

“Victoria ended up with a very small increase in the funding and it seems that other states, notably Queensland, ended with a considerably bigger increase than Victoria and no justification for it.

“We have asked the Attorney-General to make available to us a copy of the formula and the basis on which the calculations were done and we are still waiting on his response on that.

“It just seems inequitable that Victoria got such a small increase.”

Mr Ruddock also announced in the Budget that an additional $34.2 million would be provided over the next four years to appoint eight federal magistrates to improve migration litigation processes.

In other Budget initiatives in the Attorney-General portfolio:

  • the federal government will provide $97 million for the refurbishment of the Sydney Law Courts Building;
  • an additional $6.7 million over four years will be given for Australia’s contribution to the running of the International Criminal Court; and
  • a further $40 million will be granted to establish a National Community Crime Prevention Program, support new investigative methods for law enforcement agencies and to continue a juvenile diversion scheme and Aboriginal interpreter service in the Northern Territory.

Jason Silverii

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