Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), Dhadjowa Foundation and Robinson Gill Lawyers

The Coronial Inquest into the death in custody of Veronica Nelson begins today. The Inquest will examine the cause and circumstances of Veronica’s passing at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre on 2 January 2020. It will examine the adequacy of the healthcare she was provided in prison, the impact of Veronica’s Aboriginality on her death, and Victoria’s bail laws.

Coronial inquests too often dehumanises the person whose death is being examined – her mother, Aunty Donna Nelson and partner, Percy Lovett, want everyone to remember who Veronica was and how she lived her life with love, generosity and a deep connection to her spirituality.

Veronica Marie Nelson was a proud Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman. She belonged to a large family, with 6 siblings and 10 children that she loved and cared for as her own.

She was a deeply spiritual woman, whose connection to her culture was incredibly important to her; this was a gift that she would regularly share with those around her. These teachings live on in those lucky enough to have learned from her, including her nephews who are dancing today. 

Veronica was well-known as a helper, and she would give whatever she could to those who needed it – she was someone to talk to, someone who’d listen, someone who’d give you food and a place to rest. She was a well-respected member of the Fitzroy Aboriginal community.

Veronica was resilient and had a fighting spirit. Veronica had a big personality and a beautiful laugh. She made the world better for those around her and she was deeply loved.

The Inquest will be a traumatic process for her family and loved ones, but one that they hope will shed light on the events surrounding Veronica’s passing. And one that they hope will bring accountability for those that let her down and ultimately deliver Veronica justice.


Quotes Attributable to Aunty Donna Nelson, Mother of Veronica Nelson

“Veronica and I connected personally and spiritually. She wasn’t only my daughter – she was my best friend and sister.”

“Veronica didn’t have children, but in our culture, your brother and sister’s children are your children – so when you took Veronica away from me, she left behind 10 children and one grandchild.”

“The lessons learned from this inquest must stop my people from dying in custody. But let’s not lose focus. This inquest is first and foremost about Veronica, and how a broken criminal justice system locked my daughter up and let her die while she begged for help, over and over.”

“We are still connected spiritually and her spirit won’t rest until those who are responsible for Veronica’s death are exposed and held to account. Only then will my Poccum be free.”

Quotes Attributable to Percy Lovett, Partner of Veronica Nelson

“Veronica was my other half, we did everything together. We had plans for the future. Even now it spins me out how much I miss her. I walk downstairs and I still expect her to be walking around the corner. I loved her very much and I am missing her that much I don’t know what to do with myself.”

“Veronica was a very strong woman. She was also a very brainy person. She taught me so much about our culture. Whenever she would talk about Blackfellas, the stories she would come out with were unreal. She knew a hell of a lot more than me. She really woke me up and made me listen.”

“Veronica was always helping people. She would help people if she saw them in the street. She always made sure you were well off, that you had everything you needed. If you didn’t have it, she would go out and get it. She never knocked anybody if they needed help.

“Veronica shouldn’t have been in prison. She shouldn’t have died. I want to know what happened. I want someone to be held accountable.”

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.