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Time to review the legal aid means test in Victoria

Time to review the legal aid means test in Victoria

By Steven Sapountsis

Justice 


This is an edited version of a speech LIV president Steven Sapountsis gave on 10 August at the launch of the review of the VLA Means Test. The legal profession in Victoria has been an exemplar for the provision of legal services to those who, because of financial constraints or disability, have been unable to access legal services. It is no accident that the legal profession in Victoria initiated and nurtured the free legal services that have grown into the essential and substantial community legal centres we have today. But the involvement of the State has been essential to the wider availability of legal assistance to those who are unable to afford a lawyer, due to the State’s: philosophical commitment to fair justice, especially for criminal matters; and acknowledgement that, no matter how generous, the private profession cannot possibly provide all of the required services pro bono. To help cope with the demand for these legal services, the community needs State-funded legal aid and the legal aid system needs the private legal profession. I experienced this symbiotic relationship between the private profession and legal aid first hand as a young practitioner in the early 1980s, when I sought and obtained grants of assistance from the then Victorian Legal Aid Commission. I recall those relationships as being co-operative, and certainly beneficial to clients. My recollection is that the criteria for qualifying for legal aid was more generous than it is today, and legal aid was available for a wider range of matters. We had a professional conduct rule requiring lawyers to advise their clients about the possible availability of legal aid, and it was considered unsatisfactory professional conduct not to provide this information.

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