23 June 2022

VALS has made the difficult decision to implement a new client freeze in our Criminal Law practice. This will mean that we will not be taking on new clients in the Criminal Law practice at this time. We will refer community members looking for criminal legal advice and representation to other services.

This decision has been made due to a lack of funding to expand Aboriginal Legal Service which has left us unable to keep up with demand and teams like our Criminal Law Practice are critically overstretched. Not only had demand driven by the law and order agenda of the Andrews Government overwhelmed our service but also the ongoing COVID-19 backlog and delays, lack of workforce and the intensity of service required for complex clients.

Aboriginal people deserve high quality, culturally safe legal representation. It would not be fair to our clients if we continued to take on client which could affect our ability to maintain the standard of representation they deserve.

Our Criminal Law Team work incredibly hard and understand the need for their services and the safety it affords Aboriginal Communities. However, the current workloads represent an OH&S risk and we cannot risk the welfare of our staff. Attracting and retaining staff is an ongoing challenge in light of our continued funding crisis despite our persistent advocacy.

The client freeze will initially be in place for 3 months. If caseloads continue to safe levels after this initial period, the Board will review the situation to determine whether an extension to the freeze is necessary. It will take some time for the existing caseload to be worked through before levels return to an appropriate level, especially if we are not provided with extra funding by the Andrews Government.

We will continue to work with the Andrews Government, particularly the Attorney-General, to help find the funding we need to meet the demand for our services. We have a good relationship with the Attorney-General and we know that she values the work of VALS, particularly the importance of our service in rural and regional communities. At the recent Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearings into the budget, the Attorney-General noted her admiration for VALS and said that “it is an army of work that is produced out of that organisation… I am always working to ensure that we can best support them.”

Quotes Attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of VALS

“I know this decision will be incredibly difficult for the community. They will be angry and they have a right to be angry. I am angry too. We work so hard to do as much as possible with the limited funding we have, but I cannot compromise the welfare of our staff or compromise on the quality of our staff.”

“The decision to freeze new client intake is not an easy decision for myself and the Board. A lack of funding and increasing demand has unfortunately forced us to make this decision.”

“I have had many meetings with the Attorney-General and her staff about our funding needs and I am confident they will act swiftly to help resolve the current situation.”

“We hope that new funding is made available soon and that our caseloads return to healthy levels.”

Click here to read the fact sheet.

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.