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Legal aid funding vital

News

Cite as: September 2014 88 (09) LIJ, p.18

The LIV is campaigning for 10 key justice issues to be addressed by the political parties in the lead up to the November poll.

Victorians go to the polls on Saturday, 29 November facing a stark contrast between government and opposition on issues of law and order.

On the following pages, the Liberal government, the Labor opposition and the Greens respond to 10 key justice issues identified for reform by the LIV in its Call to Parties advocacy document (see August LIJ). Policy statements are also made by Attorney-General Robert Clark, Shadow Attorney-General Martin Pakula and Greens justice spokesperson Sue Pennicuik, who each forecast what a win at the ballot box will mean.

On the vital issue of funding for legal aid, the government has indicated it will continue with current levels of support. The opposition promises a “root and branch” review of access to justice including legal aid, which it describes as “in meltdown with offices closed, jobs cut, services slashed, trials adjourned, victims exposed and justice denied”. The Greens’ position mirrors what the LIV has called for including a one-off $10 million injection into legal aid funding.

The government will continue its “tough on crime” reform agenda, building on what it has already done – at least 50 measures across the justice system since 2009, many achieved with the support of the opposition. It has abolished suspended sentences, “put teeth” into community based sentencing, tightened parole and bail conditions, created new offences and lengthened prison terms.

It says specifics of new initiatives are yet to be announced, however they will be directed towards strengthening Victoria’s legal system, improving access, reducing costs and waiting times, upholding rights and supporting courts and tribunals. It will not steer funding earmarked for the expanding prison system towards community services.

“If re-elected for a second term, the Coalition government will continue with reforms to improve the law and better support Victoria’s legal system, building on all we have been able to achieve in our first term,” Mr Clark said.

The Greens have expressed concern at the government’s tough on crime approach. “On the whole, the Greens have been disturbed by the general ‘tough on crime’ agenda and the introduction of legislation that has cumulatively led to significant reductions in sentencing options and incursions into judicial discretion. These changes are not evidence based and are resulting in an exploding prison population,” Ms Pennicuik said.

Resourcing access to justice was another key concern for the Greens. Ms Pennicuik said cuts to legal aid and community legal centres had resulted in more unrepresented litigants appearing in court and others not getting appropriate advice before their court appearance.

Under Labor, Victorians would see some of the reforms introduced by the government repealed as well as laws that have been abolished reinstated, according to the opposition, which would, it says, make a point of working with the legal profession and the judiciary for law and order solutions. More specifically, it would repeal “move on” provisions which criminalise protests and reinstate the bona fide occupational requirement limitation on religious exemptions with the Equal Opportunity Act.

As well, IBAC’s jurisdiction would be widened and a Royal Commission into Family Violence convened. Sentencing amendments including a new offence of assault causing death would be created and jury sentencing recommendations for serious indictable offences trialled. The Neighbourhood Justice Centre integrated services model would also look to be extended.

LIV president Geoff Bowyer said the Napthine government had introduced some positive initiatives but the LIV opposed punitive new criminal sanctions which were seeing the state’s prisons fill to unprecedented levels – up 1000 in 12 months to 6200 – and would cost Victoria enormous sums for prison expansion and prisoner management. The tougher penalties were contrary to evidence which showed prisons were effectively schools for crime and did not reduce criminal behaviour. Resources would be better spent tackling the causes of crime – poverty, housing, employment, health – than the consequences. “The LIV is at one with the government and the opposition in wanting to see a reduction in crime but we have seen no evidence to suggest there is any link whatsoever between harsher sentencing and reductions in parole with less crime,” Mr Bowyer said. “In parts of the US and UK they have gone against longer sentences and reductions in parole in favour of community programs and there has been a drop in crime. That is effective justice,” Mr Bowyer said.

“There is a crying need for investment in family violence and drug abuse, for example, through education and community programs. Spending money on new prisons means there will be less for these crucial issues. This government which in many areas has demonstrated financial prudence doesn’t seem to apply the same rigour to demonstrate evidence be it cold, hard financial data or international studies of the link between longer prison sentencing and less recidivism. In my view it takes a populist approach . . . both parties are aware that being seen to be soft on crime means a free kick to the opposing side.

“If the government provided similar funding for addressing the causes of crime, proper resourcing of the Parole Board and legal aid then there would in our view be no need for more prison beds. It needs to have the courage to do that.”

Call to Parties is the LIV’s major piece of advocacy this year. The 10 key justice areas identified for reform were established after consultation with the LIV executive, practice section committees and stakeholders. The LIV takes this opportunity to thank Victoria’s major political parties for responding to Call to Parties.


CAROLYN FORD

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