Due to the funding decisions of the Andrews Government in the Victorian Budget 2021/22, VALS does not have the funding we need to recruit new lawyers and manage the increase in demand for our services.

Our lawyers currently manage an average of 130 casefiles each, far more than the sector recommendation of 50. Without funding for new lawyers, a freeze on new intakes is the only way to return to appropriate caseloads.

Aboriginal people deserve high quality, culturally appropriate legal representation. It would not be fair to our clients if we stretched our resources so thinly that we were not able to maintain the standard of representation they deserve.

Our caseloads have also become an OH&S risk for our staff and we will not jeopardise their wellbeing. Their caseloads are already almost 3 times the sector recommendation, despite their remuneration being lower than that of staff at other legal services.

In practice this freeze will mean that:

  • For the next 3 months, our Criminal Law and Family Law teams will not take on any new matters, except for existing clients for whom we currently have an open file.
  • Our Civil legal team will delay the planned expansion of services to Gippsland.

In 3 months time, if caseloads continue to exceed the sector recommendation of 50 casefiles per lawyer, the Board will review the situation to determine whether an extension to the freeze is necessary. We anticipate that it will take some time for the existing caseload to be worked through before caseloads return to an appropriate level.

If the Andrews Government fully funded our Placed Based Delivery Model, VALS would have been able to open Hub Offices in Mildura, Warrnambol, Bendigo, Wodonga, and the Latrobe Valley and Satellite Offices in Horsham, Geelong, Shepparton, Bairnsdale, and Frankston.

A Hub Office would be staffed by a criminal lawyer, a civil lawyer, a family/child protection lawyer, a legal secretary, and two Client Service Officers. A Satellite Office would be staffed by a criminal lawyer, a family/child protection lawyer, a legal secretary, and a Client Service Officer.

Our Place Based Delivery Model would give Aboriginal people across Victoria access to high quality, culturally safe legal services and empower them to fully exercise their rights. It would also help the Government achieve commitments in the Aboriginal Justice Agreement and make progress towards meeting the Government’s justice targets that it committed to in the new Closing the Gap Agreement.

Quotes Attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of VALS

“We have been working with the Andrews Government for years on our plan to deliver local, culturally safe legal services for Aboriginal people in Victoria. It is so bitterly disappointing that all that time and effort has been wasted when our resources are already stretched to the limit.”

“The decision to freeze new client intake has not been made lightly by myself and the Board. It follows decades of chronic underfunding of our legal service, and the Victorian Government’s repeated decision to support and fund other sector stakeholders and service providers, but not the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. It is with regret that we have concluded that freezing intake is the only viable option at this juncture.”

“I know that Aboriginal people across Victoria will be angry and worried. I am too. But I cannot run a substandard legal service and put the welfare of our staff at risk. We will continue to use what resources we have to deliver high quality legal services to as many Aboriginal people as possible.”

“Daniel Andrews and Jaclyn Symes have our plans for local, culturally safe legal services. They have the data that shows that demand for our services has overwhelmed our resources. They can fix this easily and I am hoping they will.”

 Fact Sheet – New Client Freeze

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.