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.”