Consumer Action Law Centre (Consumer Action) and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) have launched a new report on the consumer, credit and debt issues affecting Victorian Aboriginal communities today, highlighting the harmful sales tactics used by some companies and heartbreaking personal stories.

Consumer issues in Victorian Aboriginal communities’ is the final report of the Consumer Action and VALS integrated practice project – a ground-breaking partnership that seeks to address unmet consumer credit and debt legal need in Victorian Aboriginal communities.

Consumer Action and VALS’ report puts the spotlight on harmful products and practices the organisations are seeing in their casework and engagement sessions with community. These include:

  • Funeral insurance
  • Utilities issues
  • Irresponsible lending, including by payday lenders
  • Being sold unsuitable ’junk insurance’
  • Unsolicited and high pressure selling
  • Telecommunication product and services

The report also highlights the correlation between financial hardship and crime, and problems with access to consumer credit and debt legal services in communities.

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ABOUT THE PROJECT

In March 2019, Consumer Action and VALS embarked on an Integrated Practice Project (IP Project) as one way of addressing some of the unmet consumer, credit and debt legal needs of Victorian Aboriginal communities. As part of the IP Project, VALS and Consumer Action work together to participate in regular community engagement sessions with Victorian Aboriginal communities. Community engagement sessions operate in partnership with local ACCOs and other key service providers. The sessions have served to connect communities with legal advice services, financial counselling policy work and legal education relating to consumer credit and debt issues.

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.