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From the President: In desperate need of aid

Every Issue

Cite as: Cite as: (2009) 83(06) LIJ, p.4

Despite some pleasing state Budget funding, legal aid in Victoria requires sustained federal and state government funding – not just one-off monetary injections.

By Danny Barlow President, Law Institute of Victoria

I was interested to hear about the local legal aid system.

It is much more comprehensive than our system and includes legal aid for almost all civil disputes and even transport accident claims.

They, on the other hand, were somewhat taken aback when I explained the relatively limited scope of our legal aid system.

Of course, this will come as no surprise to our members who work within the legal aid field and have watched the gradual erosion of this once-great legal service over many years.

As we know, it is now practically impossible to get legal aid for civil cases and there is no legal aid available to assist those appearing before royal commissions.

Only those facing serious criminal charges and likely jail time, after strict means testing, are likely to qualify for grants of aid.

And we still have an uncertain position with legal aid funding from the federal government, as the federal/state legal aid agreement expired on 31 December last year and is not due to be renegotiated until next year.

The arrangement between the federal and state governments prohibits federal money being spent on state matters. For Victoria this has meant slashed assistance for federal (mainly family law) matters over the past year. To balance its budget this year Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) has admitted it has had to assist 30 per cent fewer people.

All this is why legal aid is currently the LIV’s number one lobbying priority. And it is why last month we were pleased with some positive announcements from the state Budget for legal aid.

We know from our many discussions with him that Deputy Premier and Attorney-General Rob Hulls is an advocate for legal aid and we welcomed his announcement of $24.7 million funding for legal aid in the state Budget.

While this will not solve the legal aid problems, it will put legal aid on a more secure footing and give it a better position going into future Budgets.

The LIV is also working with VLA on a review of rates paid to practitioners and is hopeful of a fairer system once that report is completed later in the year.

We know that in difficult economic times it is not easy to find extra dollars for access to justice. But, ironically, this is when it is most required as job losses and the tightened environment are likely to lead to more requests for aid.

At the time of writing, the federal government is a few days away from handing down its Budget. However, on 9 May it announced a one-off $20 million funding boost for legal assistance services of which $10.1 million was for federal legal aid services.

This is a good start, but one-off band-aid solutions are not the answer.

VLA went into the Budget round with a deficit from the federal government of $14 million as reported in its most recent annual report.

Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland is fully aware of the legal aid issue and its effect on everyday Australians who cannot get a legal aid lawyer in their time of crisis. We look to him for a commitment to ongoing, sustainable funding solutions. Without this, there can be no guarantee of access to justice for all Australians.

The global financial crisis has hit everyone, but it would be a terrible indictment on our society if the most vulnerable miss out again.

The LIV is keen to work with the state and federal governments to see a better deal for legal aid around the country and to redress the imbalance in Victoria.

Victoria receives over 15 per cent less per head of population than any other state or territory. In the period from 1999 to 2007, federal legal aid funding increased nationally by 45 per cent. In the same period, funding to VLA increased by only 10 per cent.

We will work with our Law Council of Australia colleagues to ensure that this inequitable arrangement does not continue to disadvantage Victorian citizens.

It may take years to restore VLA’s ability to provide appropriate access to justice for those who need it.

You can be sure that the LIV is in this fight for the long haul.

The LIV congratulates the federal government for its commitment to paid maternity leave (announced last month). The LIV has long supported paid parental leave, and welcomes the proposal which in its view will enhance maternal and child health and development, facilitate workforce participation and promote gender equity and work/family life balance.

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