MEDIA RELEASE 3 May 2022
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.”