Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to struggle to have their voices heard. They have faced and continue to face generational challenges. The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) has been fighting for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders since 1973. VALS is horrified that there have been 432 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody almost 30 years ago.  VALS echoes the calls of our community that the following needs to happen:

End the mass imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by repealing punitive bail laws; mandatory sentencing laws; and decriminalising public drunkenness.

Stop imprisoning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and raise the age of legal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 years.

End racist policing and require police accountability by ending the practice of police investigating police, and legislating for independent investigations of deaths in custody and resourcing independent police oversight bodies.

Implement all recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the countless independent investigations, coronial inquests and reports that have been published in the three decades since.

End the abuse, torture and solitary confinement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in police and prison cells through legislative safeguards and by urgently establishing independent bodies to oversee the conditions of detention and treatment of people; in accordance with our obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).

Through Wirraway, our Specialist Legal and Litigation Practice, we seek to increase our advocacy on these matters and ensure greater accountability in police misconduct, corrections services, other Government departments and in policy activity to promote and drive change.

The Practice seeks to champion the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that would not ordinary be able to access such advocacy. The Practice is committed to supporting the just treatment and just outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout Victoria. The Team are seeking to increased advocacy opportunities to bring attention to the need for improved policing practices and better approaches to custodial practices.

The Practice is called Wirraway because it is a Wurundjeri word meaning challenge. The Practice understands the challenges of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and seeks to address them. The Practice ensures that the truth is heard and that the voices of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are at the forefront. The Practice is also committed to working with Corrections Victoria and Victoria Police to see better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to promote improved police practices within the Victoria Police, that are informed by cultural understanding of the Aboriginal people of Victoria.

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.