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A fair day’s pay and justice for all

Briefs

Cite as: (2009) 83(03) LIJ, p.15


The LIV has suspended plans to withdraw from doing unfunded legal aid work after stakeholders agreed to negotiate towards a new costs structure.

The LIV, Law Council of Australia (LCA) and Victorian Bar Association are seeking an increase in legal aid funding from the federal and Victorian governments in the 2009 May Budgets to boost remuneration for practitioners.

The LIV said an increase would also trigger better client service and more efficient court systems at a time when the state government was pushing for early resolution of criminal matters.

LIV CEO Mike Brett Young said the federal and Victorian governments should view a funding boost as a means of reinvigorating the economy during tough economic times.

“Better representation leads to less court time, more cases heard and increasing access to justice. Allocating more money to legal aid, and not simply shifting around the current budget, could also result in greater savings in other areas such as the courts,” he said.

The LIV has found legal aid fees, traditionally set at 80 per cent of fees charged to private clients, has fallen to as low as 15 per cent and on average does not reach 50 per cent.

Criminal lawyers have always been willing to perform work at a discount for Victoria Legal Aid (VLA). However, the rates are now so low, according to the LIV, that many are finding it financially difficult to continue to do legal aid work.

Practitioners have also expressed concern that it is difficult to meet their professional obligations because they cannot afford to spend the time required on often complicated legal aid matters that have serious consequences for the accused.

Last November, then LIV president Tony Burke told a public rally outside Melbourne’s County Court the legal aid system would collapse if criminal lawyers and firms withdrew services.

Before the rally, the LIV had prepared a campaign of protest. However, soon after the rally, it agreed not to take protest action while a review of hours and fee allowances for summary and indictable crime in Victoria took place.

A steering committee was formed and the inaugural meeting included Mr Brett Young, LIV Criminal Law Section chair Stella Stuthridge, VLA managing director Bevan Warner and Victorian Bar, Department of Public Prosecutions and Justice Department representatives.

Ms Stuthridge said agenda items included continuity of counsel, early resolutions and time allocations for bail and complex summary crime matters. She said that the LIV was keen to outline current “insufficient” time allowances underpinning rates of pay.

The steering committee is scheduled to meet monthly, however, if no new legal aid funding is delivered in the May Budgets, the LIV may reconsider industrial action.

Mr Warner said the review process was about modernising legal aid fee scales, improving the timely disposition of cases and “removing disincentives for practitioners to commit to early case preparation”.

“We must tailor the services we provide to fit within the resources that governments make available. However, this should not prevent more appropriate time allowances being built into fee scales, particularly if it were demonstrated that this would reduce the time taken and pressures felt elsewhere in the justice system,” he said.

He would be concerned if the Commonwealth did not supplement legal aid budgets in May.

In the past year VLA registered a $20 million deficit and reduced its federal case load by 30 per cent, resulting in an increase of unrepresented Family Court clients.

The VLA receives the lowest per capita funding contribution from the federal government of any state or territory.

In January, the LCA said $250 million extra was needed for legal aid to cover salaries for legal aid lawyers, Indigenous, remote and rural services and community legal centres.

Last month the federal government announced a sweeping, six-month parliamentary inquiry probing the appointment of judges, legal aid funding, court delays and self-represented litigants.

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