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From the CEO: Time to come to legal aid

Every Issue

Cite as: (2005) 79(9) LIJ, p. 6

Greater resources for legal aid would show a true commitment by governments to access to justice issues.

We have seen over recent years significant amounts of government money devoted to law and order. We continually hear how police numbers have been increased and greater resources provided to the police force.

In the past year we have seen the state government commit substantial resources to the courts, the Office of Public Prosecutions and the police to deal with a series of trials arising from organised crime investigations. This move has clearly recognised the need for improved resources and the increased pressure on the justice system.

Unfortunately, this increased resourcing for law enforcement agencies and the court has not been matched by corresponding increases in legal aid funding. The pressure on Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) has increased, yet no relief has been provided by government.

Indexation of legal aid fees would alleviate this pressure.

State and federal governments ought to provide sufficient funding to legal aid to ensure that fees paid to lawyers are increased each year according to the consumer price index (CPI).

Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls has a great commitment to access to justice and legal aid and he is to be congratulated for the work he has done to deliver increased funding for state legal aid matters in the past.

However, the challenge remains for him to demonstrate a long-term commitment to legal aid by providing sufficient funds to allow for the indexation of fees paid to members of the private profession undertaking legal aid work.

In 2003 the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) was able to persuade the Victorian government of the need to make additional funding available to legal aid. The substantial boost of $14 million over three years was the first increase that had been paid by the Victorian government in 10 years.

While the government is to be congratulated for these increases, it has only allowed some catch up.

Now, in 2005 it is time to recommit to the campaign if long-term improvement in the availability of legal aid is to be achieved.

VLA has attempted a variety of innovative methods to provide support to those seeking legal aid. VLA director Tony Parsons and his staff have delivered some increases to the members of the private profession who undertake legal aid work.

However, VLA, like most businesses, is committed to salary increases for its staff each year and any additional funding provided by government is swallowed by increased overheads.

Before the 2003 funding increase, it had been 10 years since there had been any increase in legal aid funding for criminal matters.

At that stage, fees for the private profession were at such a low level that many practitioners simply walked away from legal aid work, never to return. This is a situation we do not wish to recur in the future.

The only way to address the ongoing problem of insufficient funding is to guarantee that fees paid for legal aid work are indexed on an annual basis.

This will protect the value of the fees paid in real terms and ensure that there is a group of practitioners prepared to undertake all legal aid crime work.

Indexation does not seem an unreasonable request, particularly in the light of the fact that, almost without exception, government charges are increased by the movement in the CPI.

If this is not done, then unfortunately we will again see the exodus of legal practitioners from this area of practice, which in many cases will harm the most vulnerable in our community.

Both the federal and Victorian governments are in a strong financial position to assist in making legal aid accessible to those who need it.

This is a great opportunity to show strong vision and leadership and true commitment to legal aid. We urge both governments to seize this opportunity.

John Cain

ceo@liv.asn.au

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