MEDIA RELEASE 17 August 2021

The imposition of curfews this week raises the troubling prospect that the Andrews Government has not learnt from the decision-making errors it made during the first year of the pandemic. It is detracting attention from vaccines and public health messaging and still thinks it can police its way out of the pandemic.

The Andrews Government has a long track record of making decisions on the fly with little regard to expert advice. We saw these poor decision-making processes exposed at the inquiry into hotel quarantine. VALS has continuously advocated for better public health measures and social supports as the only way to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been vocal in warning the Andrews Government about the destructive and harmful effects of trying to police the pandemic.

Policing measures disproportionately affect already marginalised groups, especially Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. We know from what little data has been made public that COVID fines have mostly been used to police low-income communities. A renewed fetishization of law enforcement stands to undermine hard earnt progress by the community.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have been tremendously successful in keeping themselves and the broader population safe from COVID transmission and are working hard to ensure high vaccination rates. The work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to build community support for effective COVID strategies is undermined when police use COVID restrictions to target community members.

VALS again calls on the Andrews Government to ensure that the pandemic response is:

  • Based on specific health advice. There must be a clear connection between the health advice and the restrictive measures to be imposed.
  • Compliance with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. The Andrews Government should produce a document similar to a Statement of Compatibilities for any restrictions they intend to enact.

The advice, analysis and reasoning the Andrews Government relies on must be made publicly available.

Victoria Police have been given extensive emergency powers during the pandemic. VALS wants the Andrews Government to ensure that when Victoria Police have stopped someone in relation to public health rules, they are not permitted to:

  • Execute outstanding warrants.
  • Question them about unrelated matters.
  • Search them, except for serious crimes specified by legislation.

Victoria Police should make COVID fines data publicly accessible and transparent. The community should know how many fines are being issued and where, to ensure that the powers aren’t disproportionately used against Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Dan Andrews still refuses to apologise to residents of the public housing in North Melbourne and Flemington that was shut down without warning, a decision that the Victorian Ombudsman found was not based in evidence.

With increased powers should come increased accountability. VALS has seen several questionable COVID fines issued by Victoria Police, with their subsequent internal review process simply rubber stamping those decisions, without providing an explanation as to how the review decisions have been reached. A suite of increased accountability and transparency measures should include accountability for the issuing of COVID fines, to prove they are justifiable.

Quotes Attributable to Andreea Lachsz, Head of Policy, Communications and Strategy at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service

“Victorians have weathered multiple COVID outbreaks with their commitment and resolve to keeping each other safe. The extraordinary powers given to Victoria Police only serve to undermine community spirit and put Victoria at further risk of an uncontrollable outbreak.”

“Restrictions that the Andrews Government imposes must be based on specific health advice, and there must be a clear nexus between the health advice and the restrictive measures to be imposed. As a jurisdiction with a Human Rights Charter, we expect that restrictions imposed are demonstrably compliant with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.”

“This moment of crisis requires the Government to build community trust through greater transparency, accountability, clear messaging and urgent resourcing for the socio-economic supports the community so desperately needs. What is not needed is a Government reverting yet again to policing the pandemic, targeting marginalised communities.”

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and other marginalised and vulnerable communities, are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s impacts. Victoria will not recover from the pandemic by leaving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people behind.”

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.