MEDIA RELEASE 20 May 2021

Daniel Andrews and Jaclyn Symes gave VALS $1 million dollars per year for two years to pilot our Place-Based Delivery Model in the Victorian Budget 2021/22, but our model requires $26.5 million over four years.

The Place-Based Delivery Model was to include 10 offices across Victoria, but this “pilot” funding will not fully fund even one of the proposed sites. We did not propose a pilot. Our model is based on existing programs, such as The Orange Door, and our existing regional network. It does not require piloting; it requires the Andrews Government to fund it.

Without the required funding, we will not be able to meet existing demand. The decision by Daniel Andrews and Jaclyn Symes to underfund our services is, in effect, the forced cutting of our services. The Victorian Government requires us to deliver certain services for a range of courts, but has not provided the funding we need to meet those requirements and instead it relies on the Commonwealth to meet the resource burden.

In a letter this week, the Government acknowledged that funding these services was their responsibility, but argued they were too poor to fund us. They were not too poor to invest $210 million to help the justice system recover from the COVID pandemic. They just chose to spend none of that funding on Aboriginal legal services. Victoria will not recover from the pandemic by leaving Aboriginal people behind.

This is the second year that the Andrews Government has rejected our proposal. Instead of providing sustainable, ongoing funding for Aboriginal legal services, they provided us with approximately $2 million over two years for a pilot we did not propose. We cannot do long term planning if we’re made to beg every year.

Aboriginal legal services are integral to reducing the number of Aboriginal people locked in the criminal legal system and preventing avoidable deaths in custody. The number of Aboriginal people stuck in the Victorian prison system has almost doubled during Daniel Andrews’ tenure.

Demand for Aboriginal legal services has doubled in some regions as a result of the COVID pandemic, yet no additional resources have been forthcoming. Our lawyers have caseloads of more than 130 matters at any given time. Daniel Andrews punitive bail laws are also causing a significant spike in demand for our services.

This year was the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and there have been multiple Aboriginal deaths in custody in Victoria this year. It is a crisis. This was an opportunity for Premier Daniel Andrews and Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes to make a clear statement about their commitment to Aboriginal justice, instead they turned their back on this crisis and the Aboriginal community. It puts the Andrews Government’s legacy in Aboriginal justice at risk and threatens the success of the Treaty process and the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission..

Our proposal would have seen new offices in Bendigo, Mildura, Warrnambol, Geelong, Wodonga, Shepparton, Latrobe Valley, Bairnsdale, Horsham, and Frankston. These communities have been let down. Funding for our Place-Based Delivery Model would have allowed us to deliver tailored, culturally safe legal support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people which would have helped them avoid prison and have the opportunity to contribute to their communities.

In Mildura there has been a 111% increase in our casework. In Bairnsdale and Ballarat, our casework has increased by more than 40%. Our Custody Notification network is now receiving more than 35 referrals a day and the amount of work associated with each referral has increased significantly due to the rising number of Aboriginal people arriving in custody with mental health issues and complex needs. We have also seen a significant backlog due to the closure of courts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Andrews Government recently started construction of a 106 bed expansion of the Dame Phyllis Frost prison with a $118.9 million price tag. The $26.5 million our proposal needs is equivalent to what the Victorian Government spends to keep just 56 people incarcerated over the same period of time.

The Victorian Government must:

  • Immediately fund VALS’ Place-Based Delivery Model.
  • Commit to a timeline to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14.
  • Repeal their draconian bail laws and replace them with evidence-based legislation.
  • Provide funding that gives Victoria a chance to fulfill its commitments in the Aboriginal Justice Agreement and the new Closing the Gap Agreement.
  • Consult Aboriginal community controlled organisations on the design and implementation of independent oversight of places of detention, so that they can meet the UN OPCAT implementation deadline, January 2022.

Quotes Attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of VALS

“Despite today’s disappointing outcomes we still hold hope that Daniel Andrews and Jaclyn Symes are up to the challenge and will immediately find the funding to properly resource Aboriginal legal services and back our Place Based Delivery Model.”

“The Premier and this Government’s legacy is an important one and surely they want to be remembered for making a positive contribution to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities and helping to, finally, start closing the gap. After all we have seen this with the positive steps they have taken in relation to Treaty and the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission. We are simply requesting that this spirit of reform and social justice be extended to our most vulnerable community members.”

“Today was an opportunity for Daniel Andrews and Jaclyn Symes to empower Aboriginal communities by providing sustainable funding for Aboriginal legal services to improve justice outcomes. By not investing in Aboriginal legal services, they have put the success of the Treaty process and Yoo-rrook Justice Commission at risk.”

“The Law and Order approach the Andrews Government is currently funding is unsafe and unaffordable and it does not work. It sacrifices Aboriginal lives for votes.”

“Daniel Andrews and Jaclyn Symes say ‘pilot funding’ when they mean ‘stand aside.’ We will not be stand aside while our people suffer because the Victorian Government chooses not to invest in culturally appropriate legal services for Aboriginal people. We won’t be able to even fully fund one of the proposed offices with this pilot funding.”

“Our Place-Based Delivery Model incorporates best practice from existing Government funded programs and does not require piloting – it just needs Daniel Andrews to prioritise Aboriginal communities.”

“Demand for our services is putting VALS under immense strain. It has been caused by Government decisions. The decision of the Andrews Government to implement draconian bail laws. The decision of the Andrews Government to rely on policing responses to the COVID pandemic. The decision of the Andrews Government to fund prisons and generalist legal services, but not Aboriginal legal services and social supports like housing.”

“Preventable deaths in custody continue to occur. Report after report has found that Aboriginal community-controlled services are the solution. Yet Daniel Andrews failed to invest in Aboriginal legal services in the state budget, ignoring generations of advice.”

“Because of their choices, Daniel Andrews and Jaclyn Symes are responsible for the fact that there are too many Aboriginal people in Victorian prisons. Systemic racism is a problem that is being perpetuated by state governments and state governments have a responsibility to address it – it’s not just a Commonwealth problem.”

“VALS cannot plan to deliver services that meet demand when we have to beg and plead for funding in every budget cycle.”