MEDIA RELEASE 21 July 2020

The Government’s decisions over the next few days and weeks are critical to containing the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, youth detention centres and across Victoria

Despite the Government’s efforts, COVID-19 has entered Victoria’s prison and youth detention systems. In the latest, alarming developments, six prisons are now in lockdown, following a prison officer at Ravenhall Correctional Centre testing positive for COVID-19.

While VALS appreciates that the Government is navigating a complex, ongoing and rapidly evolving situation, it has been warned for many months by both Australian and international experts, including health professionals and the World Health Organization, that preventative, evidence-based measures, such as responsibly releasing people from prisons and curbing admissions, must be implemented in anticipation of COVID-19 entering places of detention. This is in recognition of the fact that once COVID-19 enters prisons, it spreads like wildfire, and the fact that people come in and out of prisons on a daily basis – this means that any detention COVID-19 outbreaks will impact on the rest of the community.

With multiple prisons and youth detention facilities now in lockdown, VALS reminds the Government that

it must act urgently to prevent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody due to COVID-19.

Any measures taken and practices adopted in places of detention in an attempt to contain COVID-19 must never amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the Government has an obligation to provide equivalency of medical care to people in detention. The Government’s strategy to keep detained people and detention centre staff safe and healthy must be a human rights compliant, health driven one.

We know the news that there are increases in suspected prison COVID-19 cases will distress Aboriginal Communities across Victoria. We encourage our community members who have welfare concerns for a loved one in custody to reach out and notify VALS so we can undertake welfare checks and ensure our mob are feeling safe and receiving the supports and care they are entitled to.

Quotes attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service:

“We acknowledge that the Government is facing a crisis that is unprecedented in our lifetimes, and we urge the Government to work with civil society organisations, including VALS, public health experts, and medical professionals to keep all of our community safe. And to be clear – the Victorian community includes people who are deprived of their liberty. The Government has a responsibility to implement measures to keep everyone safe and healthy, especially the people who are in its care. People in detention are incredibly vulnerable, unable to take steps such as social distancing to protect themselves.

The overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal legal system means that they will be disproportionately impacted by a COVID-19 outbreak in detention. We understand that one of the detained people who has come into contact with the prison officer who has tested positive is Aboriginal. Now is the time for the Government to demonstrate a genuine commitment to ending the ill-treatment and deaths of Aboriginal people in custody, immediately and responsibly releasing people from detention.

For months we have watched the tragedies unfolding in other countries like the USA, where COVID-19 has spread out of control in prison systems and spilled out into the rest of the community, knowing that we faced the same risks here in Victoria. We cannot waste this opportunity, at the expense of people in detention and for all of the Victorian community. The Government has a small, critical window of time to take immediate steps, to release people from prison and children from youth detention, to turn things around and save the lives of people across Victoria.”

Contact: Andreea Lachsz
alachsz@vals.org.au 

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.