Changes to VALS’ means testing to increase legal support access for Aboriginal people

All Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people deserve access to culturally safe legal services, no matter what their income is. As of today, VALS will begin a staged approach to changing its eligibility requirements, making our services easier to access.

Experiences of racism are not limited by income brackets, and all Aboriginal people should be able to access culturally safe legal assistance regardless of their income. Every day, Aboriginal people in Victoria have to face culturally unsafe legal processes. The Victorian Government continues to allow police to target our communities at an abhorrent rate, while other agencies continue to interfere with and separate our family units.

This is why VALS has decided to change our eligibility requirements; to ensure that we can provide legal assistance to more Aboriginal people in Victoria. We are doing this by gradually increasing our Means Test requirements in line with our limited resources

The Means Test is a tool the Community Legal sector uses to determine if a person’s income is low enough to warrant free legal assistance. The Means Test threshold hasn’t changed since 2018, and the current Means Test no longer reflects the income level at which paying for legal assistance would put stress on a person’s financial situation.

This means that accessing high-quality, culturally safe, free legal assistance is no longer an option for many people simply because their income is deemed ‘too high’.

As of the 1st of May 2024, VALS will begin our staged increase to the Means Test threshold for legal assistance. The Means Test threshold will continue to increase by a set amount over the next three years.  In January 2027, our means test will reflect the top rate of the base tier of the Medicare levy surcharge. This means that our Means Test threshold will reflect any increases of the Medicare levy surcharge after that date. 

Although our Means Test will still be capped at a particular income level for the foreseeable future, we hope that we will one day be in a position where we are able to remove the Means Test requirement altogether. Achieving this goal is dependent on governments heading our calls for adequate and equitable funding for Aboriginal services that genuinely reflects the legal needs of Aboriginal Communities.

Over the next three years, the VALS Means Test will be set at the following rates:

  • Before 1st May 2024: a gross household income of $52,000 or less per annum,
  • After 1st May 2024: a gross household income of $65,000 or less per annum,
  • After 1st January 2025: a gross household income of $75,000 or less per annum,
  • After 1st January 2026: a gross household income of $85,000 or less per annum,
  • After 1st January 2027: top rate of the base tier for the Medicare levy surcharge.

VALS is committed to improving access to high-quality and culturally safe legal assistance for all Aboriginal people in Victoria by increasing our income eligibility requirements, but our ability to do so is limited by funding constraints. The decision to increase our Means Test is one that holds risks as we continue to experience resource stress. We are committed to making VALS more accessible yet due to funding and resource constraints we are forced to implement a staggered approach to increasing the Means Test threshold.

Australian and Victorian Governments consistently fail to provide VALS with adequate funding to meet the needs of the Victorian Aboriginal Community. Governments that are committed to the elements of Voice, Treaty and Truth and meeting the targets set out in the National Closing the Gap Agreement need to ensure they provide needs-based funding to Aboriginal Legal Services. This is what we have continually asked of the Victorian and Federal Governments, and we are eager to see this reflected in the releases of their Budgets in the coming weeks.

Our services have grown massively over the past five years yet we will have limited resources. Although the increase to our Means Test threshold means that we will be able to support more Aboriginal people who are seeking legal assistance, we still need the Government to adequately fund our services so that we can do this. We need more funding to allow us to truly self-determine how we service our community. VALS must be funded in a way that allows us to provide assistance to every Aboriginal person in Victoria who want our support; regardless of their income.  

Moving towards abolishing the Means Test entirely is a goal of our organisation. VALS celebrated our 50th anniversary in 2023, and we will continue to build on the legacy that was established in our first 50 years of service. We know that this goal reflects the hopes and dreams of our founders and our communities. Together with our community and with the support of our allies, VALS is working towards achieving a truly self-determined future that our people want. When all Aboriginal people have access to high-quality and culturally safe services then we can truly thrive.

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

“Being able to self-determine our service delivery is a huge achievement for VALS. We are proud that our decision to increase our Means Test threshold means we will be able to provide legal assistance to Aboriginal people who would be otherwise unable to access high-quality and culturally-safe legal representation.”

“Inequality in access to justice is exacerbated for Aboriginal people who earn over the standard Means Test threshold. Experiences of racism don’t only exist in certain income brackets. Regardless of income, Aboriginal people are over-policed and targeted by unfair and racist government policies. Just because a person has an income that is higher than the remarkably low standard Means Test threshold, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to access high-quality and culturally safe legal assistance.”

“I’d like to take the opportunity to thank our service delivery staff who continue to deliver an incredible service to the Victorian Aboriginal community, despite the limitations that arise due to funding constraints. This includes our Board, who have worked tirelessly over the past several years to ensure that as an organisation we were able to progress to position in which we could make the decision to break away from the industry standard Means Test threshold. Without their hard work and ability to make tough resourcing decisions we would not be in a position that allowed us to make this decision.”


273 High St, Preston VIC 3072

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