GOVERNMENT SPENDING in Victoria by users of legal services under panel arrangements has risen in 2005—06 by over 21 per cent, as compared to the previous financial year.
In 2004—05, total expenditure was $34.94 million, only marginally more than the $34.76 million spent in 2003—04, according to the Victorian Department of Justice’s government legal services annual report. But in 2005—06 that figure rose to $42.38 million.
Legal fees made up 81 per cent of total expenditure, along with 14 per cent spent on barrister fees and 5 per cent on disbursements.
When broken down into the eight component, or practice, areas that the report analyses, the most money was spent on panel firms advising on project and finance, totalling $7.4 million. This was followed by administrative law and government, which increased by $6.4 million to 58 per cent.
Other areas that saw significant increases include property — where a 117 per cent increase cost $5 million — and intellectual property and technology law, which rose to $2.3 million, up 106 per cent on the previous financial year.
Spending on the practice area of resources went in the other direction, with a 51 per cent decrease, dropping to $264,482.
The five biggest government purchasers of legal services were the departments of Infrastructure (DOI); Justice (DOJ); Human Services (DHS); Sustainability & Environment (DSE); and Education & Training (DET), in that order.
Spending the most of any government department, the DOI purchased $8.5 million of legal services (excluding Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office work), almost half of which was spent on project and finance ($4.2 million).
State Attorney-General Robert Hulls offered the report as evidence that panel firms had exceed their social justice commitment by giving $5.2 million in pro-bono advice.
“Social justice and equal opportunity are the winners in the 2005—06 annual report of the Government Legal Services Panel,” Hulls said.
“Law firms went above and beyond their commitments, delivering pro-bono services worth nearly $1.5 million more than required under the panel system.”
The report said that panel firms had exceeded its commitment of $3.8 million by giving $5.2 million in pro-bono advice, despite the fact that “in August 2006 erroneous media coverage reported that panel firms did the ‘bare minimum’,” though the source of this coverage was not specified.
“The firms are to be commended for supporting legal services that assist some of the most disadvantaged people in our society — such as the homeless — and ensuring that public interest cases can be brought to the courts,” Hulls said.
The general panel for government legal services consists of 10 member firms: Blake Dawson Waldron, Clayton Utz, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Deacons, Freehills, Holding Redlich, Maddocks, Minter Ellison, DLA Phillips Fox, and Russell Kennedy.
To be included on the general panel, firms must deliver services for at least five of the eight component areas. A further 25 firms make up the specialist panel. Although the Victorian Government Solicitor is not listed on either panel, it remains available to provide legal services to government in all areas.