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2020/21 Membership Year

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Pro bono: The Law Aid Scheme

Every Issue

Cite as: (2003) 77(10) LIJ, p.95

Law Aid has achieved its aims of provision of service and operational viability.

In 1998, the Law Aid Scheme was initiated as a joint exercise by the Victorian government, the Law Institute and the Victorian Bar Council. It is a civil litigation assistance scheme managed by eight honorary trustees appointed by the Institute and Bar.

A manager and an administration officer are employed on a part-time basis. Accommodation, telephone and facsimile services are provided “gratis” by the Bar, and the Institute provides accounting, investment, salary and superannuation services on the same “gratis” basis.

The Trustees meet monthly or more frequently as the need arises. At such meetings decisions are taken on the granting of aid and ongoing matters are regularly monitored.

Objectives and principles

A key element of the scheme is the voluntary assistance provided by members of the profession to applicants. There is no strict means test. Aid is initiated by an applicant through his or her solicitor making a written application for aid, setting out the details of the proposed claim and the nature and extent of the disbursements sought from Law Aid to fund the litigation.

The applicant’s solicitor must state that in their opinion the claim has reasonable prospects of success. The Trustees, having considered the application, may either refuse or grant it, or seek further information.

If aid is granted it may be to cover disbursements up to a certain point in the litigation (say mediation) or alternatively for the whole litigation process. The solicitor is required to keep the Trustees informed of any significant development in the action but otherwise conducts the litigation as his own matter.

In the event of a successful outcome either by the way of settlement or decision, the solicitor recovers his costs and the client is charged in the usual fashion. Law Aid has no interest in the terms of settlement save and except that under the fund fee agreement signed at the commencement of the litigation the assisted person is required through the solicitor to pay Law Aid 5.5 per cent of the damages recovered and to have the disbursements outlaid by Law Aid refunded.

If the claim is unsuccessful neither the solicitor nor any barrister retained is entitled to charge professional fees in respect of work undertaken in the litigation.

Scheme funding

In 1998, the Victorian government provided seed capital on a one-off basis to set up and run the scheme. It was made clear at the beginning that the scheme must be self-funding and statutory provisions provided that if the funds fell below a particular level the government had the option to wind the scheme up. Fortunately, Law Aid has proved to be a viable operation and the funds are in excess of the original capital sum provided.

Area of operation

At the time of inception the memorandum of understanding between the parties stated:

“The trustees of the scheme should develop a set of criteria for case selection in addition to merit and means test considerations ... to make Law Aid viable and self-sustaining. In establishing these criteria consideration should be given to the following ‘preferred matter types’:

  • substantial personal injuries claims;
  • claims against institutions involving oppressive behaviour;
  • loss or destruction of property claims;
  • professional negligence claims;
  • testator’s family maintenance claims.”

Aid has been granted in matters such as violence and abuse in a logging demonstration, High Court appeals, product liability claims, sexual harassment and VCAT claims.

Results to date

It is clear that there is now widespread support for the scheme, as figures so far this year indicate an increase in applications by some 150 per cent. The success rate on cases funded is 76 per cent. The fund has been responsible for the dispersal of approximately $11 million in damages, compensation and awards to members of the community who may otherwise not have had the opportunity to exercise their rights.

PETER J GALBALLY QC is chairman of Trustees, Law Aid.

Looking to help?

To facilitate lawyers and firms becoming involved in pro bono work other than legal services, the LIJ will profile a community group and its needs each month.

Name of group Shekinah Homeless Services Inc
Contact person Bernadette Reed
Title Coordinator of Volunteers
Tel 9287 5568 or 0422 266 122
Address C/O PO Box 146, East Melbourne 3002

Brief description of work of group In 1999 a group of seven small agencies belonging to the Catholic Homeless Network decided to incorporate a new organisation, Shekinah Homeless Services, in order to improve collaboration between services.
Services provided include emergency and medium/long term accommodation, crisis support, outreach and day programs as well as aged care residential programs.
In 2002, about 2000 homeless people used the services provided by Shekinah’s seven homeless agencies and 167 people offered their time to volunteer for Shekinah Homeless Services.

Current needs of group Shekinah is currently looking for someone who has the skills to write a major submission to the “Alcohol and Rehabilitation Education Foundation” in order to increase the staff of Shekinah (from one to six). These new staff members would be working with marginalised people as recreational officers and diversional therapists.
Shekinah is also looking for someone who has the skills and the enthusiasm to facilitate a fundraising group. The money raised would be used to assist the residents and guests of these agencies. It could be to assist with a holiday program, an art or music festival.
Money is also needed to improve the facilities available at some of these agencies.

For more information about volunteering visit:

This column is coordinated by the Victoria Law Foundation. For further information contact the Pro Bono Secretariat via the VLF’s website


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