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Victoria loses out on legal aid: lawyers

Victoria loses out on legal aid: lawyers

The peak bodies representing Victorian lawyers and barristers are riled by the federal government's "failure" to increase funding to legal aid in the Federal Budget.

THE peak bodies representing Victorian lawyers and barristers are riled by the federal government's "failure" to increase funding to legal aid in the Federal Budget. 

A reported by The New Lawyer on Monday, the Government announced it would provide more than $20 million to additional one-off funding for legal assistance programs. The announcement was made ahead of the Budget last night. 

The funding provided would focus on enhancing early intervention and alternative dispute resolution, and would include $10.1m for Commonwealth legal aid services, $4m for community legal centres, and $6.2m for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services. 

But Law Institute of Victoria president Danny Barlow said today the federal Government has not done enough. Without additional long term funding from the Federal Government the "already desperate situation" with Victorian Legal Aid (VLA) would only get worse over the next year, he said.

The VLA has cut grants for federal family matters by 30 per cent, there is no funding for contravention and enforcement of court orders cases; there is a quota on funding Independent Children’s Lawyers; solicitors are not funded to appear in family law trials, even when they are court appointed; and there is no funding for property matters even when they involve children’s issues, Barlow said.

“The fact is family court cases seeking legal aid often involve our most vulnerable – people who have been abused and who need the help of a lawyer to be able to put their best case forward.

"The lack of representation also makes our courts less efficient and leads to delays which adds to the unfairness to families,” Barlow said.

Victoria receives the lowest per capita legal aid funding from the Commonwealth of any State, Barlow said. The Federal and State agreement expired on 31 December last year and has been rolled over for another 12 months.

“The system can only continue to go backwards while we wait for a better deal from the Commonwealth for Victoria Legal Aid,” Barlow said.

In its last annual report, VLA reported a deficit of $14 million for Federal funding. 

“We urge the Federal Government to bring forward negotiations on the national legal aid agreement and put funding on a fairer footing for Victorian families,” Barlow said.

Barlow said it was disappointing that the Federal Government had not followed the Victorian Government’s lead and prioritised legal aid funding as a critical access to justice issue. Victoria last week announced $24.7 million extra for legal aid, which goes mainly to criminal cases.

Victorian Bar chairman John Digby QC this week said the $20m funding announcement is "very disappointing".  "As a one-off band aid measure, it does nothing to stabilise the long-term operation of the legal aid system," he said.   

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