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Paltry pledge for legal aid


Cite as: June 2013 87 (6) LIJ, p.16

Legal aid got $13.7 million additional funding over four years in the state budget and $30 million more over two years in the federal budget in May – welcomed but not enough said the legal profession.

The Law Council of Australia (LCA) said $76.2 million more in 2013-14 was needed to return the commonwealth to a 50 per cent share of funding with states and territories. The $15 million it got for 2013-14 was $61.2 million short of what was required.

The LIV, which had lobbied the state government for an immediate one-off injection of $10 million on top of ongoing funding for legal aid, was disappointed with the sum pledged, LIV president Reynah Tang said.

“While the LIV welcomes the $13.7 million for legal aid, the amount is paltry compared with that allocated to areas such as policing. The increased budget for police and PSOs [protective services officers] means more people in court and more demand on legal aid funding, which cannot be met by the inadequate funding in the budget,” Mr Tang said.

The Victorian Bar said the budget allocation would ensure Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) remained solvent but it would not address the chronic underfunding of legal aid cases.

Victorian Bar chair Fiona McLeod SC said the federal government shared responsibility for legal aid funding and called for a national legal aid summit and a new national partnership agreement between the states and federal governments as a means to end the “blame game” over who should fund what. The Bar wants the commonwealth share of legal aid funding restored to 50 per cent – up from 32 per cent.

VLA also welcomed the funding but managing director Bevan Warner said it wasn’t enough to reverse its new guidelines.

“This additional funding will help us to continue services at the level set by the introduction of our new eligibility and service guidelines over the past year,” he said.

“Our deficit was $3.1 million last year and we expect a greater deficit this year. Our eligibility and service guideline changes over the past year will place us on a more sustainable footing going forward.

“The extra funding does not give us scope to reverse any of the guideline changes introduced this year or provide additional services without making savings elsewhere.”

Hours before the budget was set down, the VLA board endorsed funding for instructing solicitors in indictable crime trials “as and when required”. The interim guideline acknowledged the importance placed by the Victorian Court of Appeal on having instructing solicitors present during criminal trials, Mr Warner said, and savings within VLA would need to be identified to fund this.

The amendment was welcomed by Mr Tang.

“The LIV welcomes the decision of the board of VLA to provide funding for instructing solicitors in indictable crime trials ‘as and when required’. We look forward to further consultation with VLA on longer term arrangements to ensure that vulnerable Victorians can continue to be confident of receiving a fair trial,” Mr Tang said.

About $150 million over four years was earmarked for the justice system in the state budget: victim support groups $16.5 million; courts $57.2 million; asset confiscation operations $27.7 million; infringements system upgrade $34.5 million; and legal aid $13.7 million. Almost $32 million will be spent on new police stations and $131.5 million will be spent on prisons.

Federally, $10.3 million was earmarked for community legal centres, $12 million for Indigenous legal services and $62.4 million over three years for legal support for people engaging with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.


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