Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS)

Today the Andrews Government chose once again to leave the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) dangerously underfunded. Perversely, this is the eighth consecutive Andrews Government budget that continues to endanger Aboriginal legal services.

This failure means more of our children will be removed from their families, more of our people will be incarcerated, and more of our people will die in custody. It will cost the Government far more money to ‘cure’ this short and long-term harm than to prevent it.

It is commendable that the Andrews Government has invested considerable funds into Treaty and Yoo-rrook; and signed on to the new Closing the Gap justice targets, but these initiatives cannot fulfill their potential while our people cannot access the legal services that they need.

This failure also threatens Victoria’s ability to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Victoria cannot recover strength by leaving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people behind. Our people were already more likely to face economic discrimination, financial stress, and homelessness before the pandemic. These situations and the burden on government will only worsen if the Andrews Government fails to invest in services like VALS.

Earlier this year, the Coroners Court of Victoria published a report showing that Aboriginal deaths by suicide massively increased by 75% last year, partly due to unnecessary contact with the justice system. Preventing contact with the justice system in the first place, and ensuring culturally safe legal services, is absolutely critical to bridging the gap. But that won’t be possible unless VALS is funded to provide this essential legal work in the first place.

We’ve worked with multiple Attorneys-General and the Department of Justice and Community Safety for many years now on our plan for local Aboriginal legal services to service communities where they are. Despite these constructive talks we once again have missed out on overdue funding to meet ever expanding community need. We are hopeful that the Andrews Government, including the Treasury Department, will dedicate the necessary time and resources to fund our vital service in the coming months. Prevention is better than cure.

The investments we have asked of the Andrews Government are miniscule compared to the more than $200m they recently spent on purchasing ever more tasers for police, a fraction of the billions of dollars they have spent on building new and bigger prisons, and tiny compared to the money they have spent on generalist legal services and the courts. Indeed, Victoria’s spending on police, prisons and courts has grown at double the rate of other states over the last decade. Such unsustainable expenditure fails to deliver economic or social benefits.

Investing in VALS would allow us to get our people out of the justice system and keep them out; and reduce the government’s overall expenditure on the justice system. It is worth noting that unlike many comparable government-funded bodies, the Board of VALS has always been composed entirely of unpaid Aboriginal volunteers. The Board is happy to volunteer their time, but it is unacceptable that the staff of VALS are overworked and paid salaries far below industry standards. That makes it very hard to retain the staff we need to serve our people.

Prevention is better than cure. It is time to once and for all end the deaths in custody and the creation of more and more stolen generations. Prevention also provides much needed cost savings to Victorians. VALS stands ready to assist Treasurer Pallas to better understand these valuable cost savings and the incalculable benefits of helping to bridge the gap.

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

“I am once again incredibly frustrated by the budget choices of the Andrews Government. Over the last 8 years they have managed to find billions of dollars to spend on prisons and police, but they can never find the small amount that VALS needs to properly support our communities’ legal needs.”

“VALS is deeply disappointed that the Treasurer, Tim Pallas, has again chosen not to invest in Aboriginal legal services. Aboriginal deaths in custody continue, our people continue to be over-incarcerated, and self-harm and death by suicide has increased in our communities because we don’t have access to culturally appropriate services. Our lives should matter enough to the Treasurer for him to invest in organisations like VALS.”

“The Andrews Government has an ambitious agenda for Aboriginal justice, but the potential of this agenda will only be achieved if the Andrews Government invests in Aboriginal legal services. Treaty and Yoo-rrook cannot succeed while our people continue to be harmed by a justice system built on systemic racism, particularly when they cannot access support services like VALS because the Andrews Government has not properly funded them.”

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.

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.

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.