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Legal aid critical

Cite as: September 2013 87 (9) LIJ, p.06

There is still much work to do before next year’s state election.

By Michael Brett Young, LIV CEO

With so much attention fixated on the federal election, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the issues affecting our state.

With this in mind, the LIV has assessed the Victorian government’s performance so far on issues including access to justice, sentencing and the protection of rights. You can read our report card on pages 20-25.

It is clear that there is still much work to do before next year’s state election. I would like to share some of the LIV’s priorities with you.

The most important issue for the legal profession this year has been the legal aid funding crisis. Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) reported a deficit of $3 million in 2011-12, at least partly because of increased demand for services due to the government’s policies on policing, child protection and family violence. As a result, VLA has tightened its eligibility guidelines, with many vulnerable people now missing out on assistance.

Both the federal and state budgets provided more funding for legal aid which is appreciated, but it was well short of what is needed to end the crisis. The LIV has been doing a tremendous amount of work to advocate for more funding and we will continue our efforts on this critical issue. At a time when the Coalition is spending more on protective services officers at train stations, surely some of that funding can be redirected to providing access to justice for the most disadvantaged people in our community.

Access to justice is also a critical issue in the bush. The LIV believes the government needs to consider initiatives such as capital investment to carry out repairs of regional courtrooms, increasing opportunities for regional firms to undertake government legal work, and cash incentives for lawyers who complete a specific time period in rural, remote and regional areas. It is pleasing to see the government has committed funds for the upgrades to the Wangaratta and Bendigo courts. We also welcome Regional Development Victoria’s Young Provincial Cadetship Program, which provides opportunities for students to undertake paid work-based cadetships by offering financial assistance to businesses employing tertiary students.

Of great concern is the government’s move to abolish suspended sentences for some serious offences including recklessly causing serious injury, aggravated burglary, arson and trafficking in commercial quantities of drugs.

The LIV believes that suspended sentences are an important part of the justice system, and judicial discretion should prevail. The LIV welcomes the government’s move to ask the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) to review laws governing the registration of sex offenders. We believe there is a need for less restrictive means for protecting the community from high-risk offenders. Among the VLRC’s recommendations is replacing automatic registration with individual assessment by the court when the offender is registered, and allowing authorised police and child protection workers to disclose to a child’s parents that a person having contact with their child is a registered sex offender. We also welcome the recommendations of the Victorian Parliamentary Reform Committee’s inquiry into sexting. It is not appropriate for 18-year-old teenagers engaged in consensual sexting with 15-year-old girls to be placed on the sex offenders register, and their futures consequently jeopardised. This would be an opportunity for judicial discretion to be exercised.

On the issue of human rights, the LIV is seeking continued consultation with the government on the review of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. The LIV welcomed the government’s response in March 2012 to the review of the Charter by the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee, which did not repeal the obligations on public authorities to take account of human rights and the Charter’s requirement that laws be interpreted in accordance with human rights. The government indicated that these issues remain under review and that it would consult with legal stakeholders, including the LIV, on these matters. The LIV met with the Attorney-General’s office last year and later wrote to the government seeking further information on the proposal for stakeholder engagement. The LIV looks forward to participating further in the consultation process.

The LIV congratulates the government for initiating a long-overdue review of the Wrongs Act. We have been advocating for tort law reform for some time, and look forward to contributing to the review.

We also thank the Victorian government for its support in achieving a national legal profession. It is critical that whichever party wins the federal election commits to backing and funding this pivotal reform.


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