Judge postpones trial as legal aid crisis deepens
The judge presiding over a murder trial in the Supreme Court has put it on hold, possibly indefinitely, following an urgent application by the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) to test the decision not to fund a solicitor for the accused.
On Monday (18 February), Justice Terry Forrest stayed the major trial - the second such Supreme Court stay granted in a week - after the LIV intervened claiming the trial is at risk due to Victoria Legal Aid’s (VLA) decision not to fund an instructing solicitor for the man accused of murder.
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The LIV has argued that it is necessary for an accused to have both a barrister and an instructing solicitor in order to receive a fair trial.
"We call on Victoria Legal Aid to immediately restore its former guidelines on instructing solicitors, and the Victorian Government to urgently inject $10 million to ensure that this does not result in VLA cutting funding for other people in need,” said LIV president Reynah Tang.
The legal aid system in this state is in crisis and this decision is just a reflection of that, he added.
The Age has reported that the defendant’s barrister has threatened to withdraw from the case if the Supreme Court does not force VLA to pay for more help for his client.
In his decision, Justice Forrest identified 16 key roles for the legal team in a complex trial that require the involvement of an instructing solicitor.
He said the proposal that the accused be represented by a one-person legal team would constitute a significant disadvantage, while pointing out that there would be other criminal trials where the accused would not receive a fair trial in the absence of an instructing solicitor.
“If I am correct, the unfortunate effect of VLA’s cost constraints is that many criminal trials will be postponed for as long as the cost-cutting protocol survives. This is incompatible with the proper, timely and just administration of criminal justice,” said Justice Forrest.
Held to ransom
Law Council of Australia president Joe Catanzariti (pictured) said the deepening crisis of legal aid funding in Victoria was symptomatic of a national legal aid system in turmoil.
“It is deeply concerning that trials are now being delayed as a result of the continued underfunding of legal aid in Australia,” he said.
“Unfortunately, we are now seeing the direct evidence of cuts to legal aid funding: delayed trials and a judicial process held to ransom by inadequate funding.
“Justice delayed is justice denied; Australia cannot tolerate a society where limits on access to justice have such stark consequences.”