The $24.7 million funding announced for Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) in this year’s State Budget must be backed up by improved Federal funding, according to the Law Institute of Victoria.
Federal Government funding covers only federal matters including family law, while State Government funds criminal law matters.
LIV president Danny Barlow said the Victorian Attorney General had achieved a strong base funding for legal aid this year, in the face of extreme economic pressures.
However, Barlow said that future Federal funding should ensure increased availability for legal aid services for those appearing before the courts and increased legal aid rates.
He said over many years, qualifying for legal aid grants has become increasingly more difficult as guidelines are strictly interpreted to ensure only the poorest of the poor meet the test. Even these people are only able to be legally represented because of legal practitioners who are prepared to work for fees which have not increased in six years.
"Legal Aid has received some urgently needed assistance from the State Government. It had reported a deficit of $20 million last year - $14 million from Commonwealth funding, and $6 million from State funding,” Barlow said.
“This funding will allowed legal aid to continue its vital work,” he said.
The latest figures in Victoria show that 95 per cent of people who ask for legal aid in Victoria get it. But that leaves 5 per cent with no representation. About 2,000 people a year wind up at a centre like PILCH, the Public Interest Law Clearing House, in Melbourne, ABC radio reports.
PILCH has more than a thousand lawyers on its books, ready to give advice for free. But PILCH executive director Kristen Hilton said it's not practical for the legal system to rely on the generosity of lawyers to maintain access to justice, reports ABC radio.
Meanwhile, the Law Council of Australia said there has been a decline in the number of lawyers prepared to do pro bono work, or to work for legal aid, because they earn about half the commercial rate.
The Law Council, which represents the profession nationally, has long called on the Federal Government to increase legal aid funding so that community legal centres can provide more help to people involved in civil actions, who are not covered by federal funding.
A VLA annual report showed last year VLA received $42.8 million in state grants, and $31.8 million from the Public Purpose Fund, which is basically the interest on money held in solicitors’ trust accounts. It also received $35.1 million from the Commonwealth.
Barlow said the Commonwealth State legal aid agreement must be renegotiated to give Victoria a fairer deal. Victoria receives the lowest per capita Federal legal aid funding.
“We will be looking at next week’s Federal Budget in the hope that there is a recognition that Victoria Legal Aid is underfunded and deserves more support,” Barlow said.