Media Release - 25th November 2020


The Government’s Budget that was announced yesterday, which is so generous to Victoria Police, to Corrections and to Youth Justice, fails vulnerable Aboriginal people. During the pandemic, our people have been over-policed, receiving a disproportionate number of fines, have experienced more family violence and homelessness, have been heavily impacted by the removal of our children and have experienced damaging lockdowns in prison and youth detention. 

 

This Budget was a missed opportunity to establish the supports necessary for our community to rebuild post-COVID-19. Without this support, VALS will not be able to provide the legal help that our mob are going to need as restrictions ease, the courts work through their backlogs and more generally, over the coming months and years, as the economic, health and social impacts of the pandemic continue to be felt.  

 

A strong social safety net and robust public service are the bedrock of equality and opportunity for all. The Government’s decision to not invest public funds into Aboriginal community-controlled services, including VALS, and the broader community legal sector is economically unsound. Failing to address legal needs as early as possible will inevitably lead to greater economic and social costs in the medium and long term.

This is a time to move forward, together. VALS had a strong and culturally safe plan to help our communities build back better from this pandemic, but this was not prioritised by the Government. A place-based model, reaching regional and remote communities, would enable us to provide a flexible, prevention-focused service that accounts for the unique needs of different Victorian communities and that facilitates a collaborative approach. The Budget provided $103.6 million for the Corrections and Youth Justice COVID-19 response, $38.9 million for Victoria Police’s COVID-19 response, and $47.5 million for Victoria Legal Aid.

 

VALS has been offered a mere $2.176 million over two years to develop only two hubs for Aboriginal communities across Victoria. This paltry offering will not deliver on the need for Aboriginal people to access consistent, culturally appropriate legal services within their community. Time and again throughout this pandemic, Aboriginal communities have proven that a self-determined approach is most effective, and yet our people have been left behind by Government in this Budget.  

 

It is utterly shameful that Victoria’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates have more than doubled between 2009 and 2019. It is unacceptable that our people continue to die in custody, that our children are disproportionately locked up and robbed of their childhood and their futures, that our communities continue to be Aussie Online Casinos devastated by a system that removes our children from their families and culture. A Government that ostensibly supports the Black Lives Matter movement, that is committed to Closing the Gap, that is negotiating Treaty, repeatedly refuses to heed VALS’ calls to reverse the bail reforms which have disproportionately impacted on our community, particularly Aboriginal women, many of whom are victimsurvivors of domestic violence, and to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years old. And now, at a time of crisis, our chronically underfunded legal service is denied the means by which to support our community, to prevent Aboriginal people falling even further behind the rest of Victoria.

VALS calls on the Victorian government to urgently fund essential legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Victoria. This pandemic must not further entrench existing disadvantages, and these much needed services will ensure the community is not forgotten or left behind. If legal issues are addressed early, this will stop legal problems escalating and prevent harm to our community, which saves public money and is better for everyone.  We need governments that stand up for all of us, not just a powerful few.  

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

“The Government has left Aboriginal people behind with this Budget rather than backing our culturally safe plan to build back better our communities post COVID-19. This decision has been made despite the global and Victorian Black Lives Matter movement, which thousands of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people took to the streets to support.

Yesterday’s Budget makes very clear where the Government’s priorities lie – and that these do not include the Aboriginal community. The Budget demonstrates a commitment to a law and order approach that has never improved community safety and has only led to an increase in Aboriginal overincarceration and more Aboriginal deaths in custody.

We have a strong, culturally safe plan to rebuild and legally support our communities, but it was ignored. It will not be possible for our chronically underfunded service to meet the anticipated increased demand resulting from the pandemic. The Budget signifies the Government’s failure to meet the commitment it made only a few short months ago, to Close the Gap, and to ensure Aboriginal people would be supported to recover as quickly as the rest of the community from the pandemic’s social and economic impacts.”

END
 

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.