FITZROY LEGAL Service (FLS) is mounting a campaign to protest against recent Victorian Legal Aid funding cuts that have already jeopardised its case work practice.
FLS says the cuts represent 40 per cent of it’s funding from Victoria Legal Aid, and will necessitate cuts in services provided to approximately 400 clients per year. The service is currently the one of the few legal services in Victoria open five nights a week.
The results of the cuts have been felt immediately, says executive officer Robin Inglis: “We have already given redundancy notices to the staff [in the legal practice] who were fully funded or partly funded [by VLA], and it means that our capacity to do case work and represent people is significantly reduced,” he said.
Because the VLA is an independent statutory body, there’s no avenue for the FLS to appeal the decision.
“The only people involved in changing the decision are the board or senior management at Legal Aid, and they’ve not shown much interest in doing that at this stage,” Inglis said.
Fitzroy Legal Services has traditionally had access to two main sources of funding; one has been the Community Legal Program and the other has been the ability to claim for solicitor costs. The funds provided by the VLA for solicitor fees are drawn from the same pool of money accessible to private law firms for legal aid.
The arrangement is a longstanding one, operating for 30 years since 1975. No other community legal centre has the same funding arrangement. It is this unique funding status that lies at the heart of the dispute with the VLA.
One of the rationales offered for the funding cuts is that the funding arrangement is unfair to other Community Legal Centres (CLCs). But this concern about equity has not been raised as a concern by the CLCs themselves. Hugh de Kretser, Executive Officer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres told Lawyers Weekly that members had passed a motion requesting Legal Aid defer the decision to cut funding to the FLS.
Instead, the Federation recommended that Legal Aid review whether all community legal centres should be entitled to solicitor grants. They pointed to the 2007 New South Wales review of legal services funding. The review supported the expansion of the CLC funding model, recommending that more CLCs be able to access solicitor funds.
When asked to comment on the apparent breakdown of the relationship between the CLCs and VLA, Inglis said the strain was a result of long-term funding cuts to community legal services across the sector.
“The difficulty, of course, for Legal Aid is that they have been struggling in terms of funding for a decade now, basically. So I think, because of the limitations that Legal Aid have on them, I don’t think they’ve necessarily been looking at how to work more creatively or more collaboratively with CLCs to the extent that they might have,” he said.
“In the present climate of trying to struggle to get money for Legal Aid, it’s vital, I think, that as far as possible the private profession, Legal Aid and legal centres are [seen to be] working together”
Inglis remains optimistic about the prospect of the decision being overturned, especially given the widespread support from across the community and private legal sector.
“We’ve had a lot of support — we’ve had pro-bono support from Blake Dawson and we’ve had a lot of support from people in the legal profession saying they can’t understand how this has happened. We’ve had people from as far away as Tasmania and Queensland emailing us expressing their concern that something with the track record of the legal service is being dismantled for no rational reason.”