A culturally appropriate legal service specifically established to give Aboriginal children in Victoria a voice in their legal proceedings will be forced to close its doors on Friday 28 September 2018 after no ongoing funding has come forward from State or Commonwealth governments.

VALS understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children move in and out of the child protection and youth justice systems with patchy or little legal representation.  These children often come into contact with these systems due to intergenerational trauma, substance misuse, family violence, grief and poverty.  Once they become part of these system they often rapidly move down a path of disconnected care, separation from their community and culture and perpetuate the existing cycle of loss, trauma, intermittent incarceration and disadvantage.  A VALS lawyer once heard a 16-year-old Aboriginal child in youth justice say “I’m a lost cause, aren’t I?”

That’s why in 2017 VALS launched Balit Ngulu (meaning strong voice) to ensure that no child would ever feel this way.  The integrated and culturally appropriate services provided to over 100 Aboriginal ensured that issues of client conflict where addressed, which drive Aboriginal children to need representation by non-Aboriginal legal services and private practitioners who do not have the appropriate connection to community to support the essential kinship ties necessary for Aboriginal children to thrive, particularly in times of vulnerability,” said Nerita Waight. “Sadly, many of the children represented have fallen through the cracks of familial breakdown, disconnect with culture and home instability, and require frontline legal services to maintain their rights and ensure they have a future.”

VALS took a risk in establishing a service to address an emergent need, the lack of culturally appropriate legal services to children, because we couldn’t fathom why such a pivotal service would not receive funding from the State or Commonwealth government when the futures of vulnerable children were at stake. “Now with ever increasing rates of child removal and incarceration these vulnerable children need a voice, however the lack of funding for this service means I cannot promise that young person that they won’t be considered a lost cause and moved from service and service with little therapeutic support”, Nerita Waight, Acting Chief Executive Officer, of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service said. “Tragically whilst funding promised in the recently launched Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 4 addresses holistic responses to justice issues, it seems that the legal needs of Aboriginal children are being ignored.”

Where possible, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service is absorbing remaining clients and staff into its practice. Ms Waight said VALS would continue the fight to secure ongoing funding for an Aboriginal specific children’s legal service. “We know our children deserve legal services that respect their cultural needs as much as advocate for their legal rights. Children need to be nurtured and supported to reach their full potential, not punished for circumstances beyond their control.”

MEDIA CONTACT: Kirsten Stewart (03) 9418 5999

To determine eligibility VALS will:

  • enquire as to the Aboriginality of the client;
  • enquire as to perceived or actual conflict of interest;
  • enquire as to compliance with the Means Test;
  • consider the merit of the client’s matter.

Aboriginality
The first time someone uses VALS they must provide proof of their Aboriginality using the Confirmation of Aboriginality Form. This form must be signed and sealed by the Officer Bearers of a recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation.

Conflict
VALS must not decline to provide assistance to an eligible person, group or body on the grounds that the other party to the matter is an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person. In circumstances where the relationship between the parties to a case would result in a conflict of interest, that conflict must be managed in accordance with the Victorian Legal Practice requirements and Policy Direction 9 – “Managing Conflicts of Interest” – of the Attorney-General’s Department Policy Directions for the Delivery of Legal Aid Services to Indigenous Australians (2008).

VALS will not act if a conflict of interest exists. A conflict of interest may be an ‘actual’ conflict of interest or a ‘perceived’ conflict of interest. A conflict of interest can involve:

  • Clients who have different interests, such as VALS may have advised or acted for person “A” (old client) who has an interest that conflicts with person “B” (intended new client).
  • Clients and VALS, such as a VALS staff member or Board Member has an interest that conflicts with an intended new client. Conflicts involving client-provider relationships are:
    •  An owner, director, manager, employee, contractor or agent of VALS and/or;
    • An employee of the Department; and/or
    • A close relative (spouse, de facto, parent, sibling or child) of any of the above.

VALS provides assistance on a first in best dressed basis (i.e. provide direct assistance to the party who approaches VALS first). VALS will refer the other party to another legal service provider or “brief out” the client to a private lawyer (subject to the client meeting the requirements for brief outs). Where appropriate, VALS may act for one client and provide assistance by brief out to the other.

Means Test
Where a person seeks casework assistance, VALS must ensure that applicants satisfy the Means Testing provisions of the Policy Directions.

VALS must ensure that all applicants for legal casework assistance satisfy one or more of the following requirements:

  • Under 18 years of age;
  • Main source of income comes from Community Development Employment Projects; (CDEP) participant wages or Centrelink (or equivalent) benefits; or
  • Gross household income is under $52,000 per annum.

Note: Household income includes the income of your partner, spouse, relative including an adult child who you live with.

The Means Test will be administered in two parts:

Part A: Requires the completion of a small number of questions relating to the applicant’s personal circumstances and income level.

Part B: Is required where applicants do not satisfy the criteria in Part A. It requires more detail about the applicant’s income, assets, employment status and number of dependents.

Merit Test
Discretion will be used to determine if a particular case has merit.