The Victorian legal community has turned on the state and federal governments over proposed cuts to legal aid, with a protest rally of lawyers due to take place next week.
On Monday (3 December) around 160 barristers and solicitors attended a meeting that condemned possible cuts to legal representation in Victoria. Prior to the meeting, Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) advised the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) that it faced a budget blowout.
For 2011-12, VLA reported a $3.1 million deficit.
“The Federal Government has let the community of Victoria down by not continuing to properly fund legal aid,” LIV president Michael Holcroft (pictured) told Lawyers Weekly. “But the state government has been elected on a law and order platform, and they have funded an extra 1700 police officers but they haven’t funded the other side of the equation, so they have added significant pressure to legal aid.”
Since 1997 the Federal Government’s percentage of funding to the VLA has dropped from more than half to around one third. Holcroft said the state government only increased its VLA funding by one percent last year, while demand had “skyrocketed”.
He cited a 40 per cent increase in proceedings involving family violence, a 22 per cent increase in the initiation of drug crimes and a 12 per cent increase in crimes against the person proceedings as necessitating increased resources for the VLA. He also said the global financial crisis had led to an increase in the number of people qualifying for legal aid under its financial guidelines.
“We have seen finger pointing from both the state and federal governments,” said Holcroft. “The state government says ‘we are paying our fair share and the Federal Government isn’t’, but the state government has increased the demand.
“The Federal Government has been singularly unapologetic for failing to meet their moral obligations to fund access to justice and, for a party with socialist ideals, that is very disappointing, especially given we have a Prime Minister and an Attorney-General that were both lawyers in this state.
“They should know better.”
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon were Melbourne-based lawyers for Slater & Gordon and Maurice Blackburn respectively before entering Parliament.
On Tuesday next week (11 December) Holcroft will be present at a planned protest rally on the forecourt of the County Court that is expected to attract hundreds of lawyers.
In 2010, the Victorian legal community successfully staged a protest at the County Court that saw the former Labor Government boost the legal aid budget.
Holcroft has also called on the VLA to delay any decision on the current proposals until the end of January 2013 as discussions with the state and federal governments continues.
Victorian chief justice Marilyn Warren has also called for more funding for the VLA.
The VLA board is next due to meet on Thursday 13 December.