MEDIA RELEASE 11 November 2020

The Victorian Aboriginal community must not be left behind in the COVID-19 recovery response

Today the Victorian Government announced that it is investing $235 million to building the recovery workforce, and $40 million to support a service delivery fund for Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations to boost services that will provide targeted support.

VALS anticipates that the demand for our services will increase, not only over the next few months as restrictions ease and the courts work through their backlogs, but over the coming years, as the ongoing economic impacts of the pandemic lead to more people having legal issues and fewer people being able to afford legal representation. Additionally, it often takes time for people to recognise their issues as legal ones, and it is highly likely that people will not immediately approach VALS and other legal services with their concerns, such as COVID-19-related fines. 

Aboriginal people were already disproportionately involved in the criminal legal and child protection systems before the pandemic,  and there is a very real risk that the justice gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people will only widen if effective preventive steps are not taken early on. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic Aboriginal Legal Services like VALS were already chronically underfunded and unable to meet demand for state based issues. With already increasing demand, fewer and fewer Aboriginal people will be provided with the essential legal and community justice supports they need to divert away from the justice system.

Just a few months ago, under the Closing the Gap Agreement, the governments “commit[ted] to engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives before, during, and after emergencies such as… pandemics to make sure that… Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not disproportionately affected and can recover as quickly as other Australians from social and economic impacts.”

Quotes attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service:

“There needs to be an urgent injection of funds to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations to meet the needs of the Aboriginal community in an effective and culturally appropriate way. Just a couple of weeks ago, the bushfire Royal Commission highlighted in its report that following a disaster, legal issues inevitably arise, and a couple of months ago, the Government made a commitment under the Closing the Gap Agreement that the Aboriginal community would not be disproportionately affected by the pandemic and would be supported to recover as quickly as everyone else.

It is not only the Government’s responsibility to ensure Aboriginal people don’t get left behind during the COVID-19 recovery phase, it is also in their interests for VALS to be properly funded to address the legal needs as early as possible, as this will minimise both the social and economic costs in the short, medium and long term.”

Contact: Andreea Lachsz
alachsz@vals.org.au

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.