The Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) has warned that cuts to Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) are beginning to bite, despite the state's Supreme Court improving its clearance rate and clearing its backlog of cases at a quickening pace.
A performance report released by the Supreme Court of Victoria showed an average clearance rate of 116 per cent in all trial and appeal areas in 2011-12, representing a 10 per cent bump on the previous year.
In some areas, the clearance rate reached 151 per cent, while the court's overall backlog of cases dropped by 21 per cent, with more than 1200 extra civil cases cleared during the reporting period.
Although LIV president Reynah Tang (pictured) said he was pleased that the Supreme Court was resolving more cases and making efforts to clear the backlog, he remains concerned about the increased pressure on county and magistrates’ courts due to cuts in legal aid.
“The strong performance of the Supreme Court is down to some improved procedures put in place to handle matters more efficiently, particularly in relation to some of the complex class action matters,” said Tang.
“However, the county and magistrates’ courts remain under pressure from an increased demand.
“The LIV is concerned about the combination of this demand and the cuts to legal aid … we’re concerned about a blowout in clearance times for these courts in the current year.”
The LIV has been one of the fiercest critics of the funding cuts to the VLA, and Tang believes Victoria’s courts are beginning to see the impact of those cuts.
The cuts are only now having an impact on actual cases, with people unable to get representation because VLA can no longer afford to help them, he said.
Tang added that the only solution to the problem is a fresh injection of legal aid funding, “so we don’t have more and more unrepresented people in court, which take more time to deal with”.
Critics of the legal aid cuts have argued the new VLA guidelines mean stricter eligibility criteria for some services and changes in the way other services are delivered to clients.
Elsewhere in the Supreme Court performance report for 2011-12, figures showed that the backlog of cases pending for more than 24 months had decreased by 40 per cent, while cases pending for more than 12 months decreased by 37 per cent.
There was also a 19.9 per cent drop in appeals lasting for more than 12 months, compared with the previous year.
The court workload expanded, with increases in lodgements of civil litigation and large class actions on the back of the Black Saturday bushfires cases.
“In the Commercial Court, the commencement of non-corporations cases rose by 65 per cent, while the finalisation of those cases increased by 61 per cent,” said Chief Justice Marilyn Warren.
In the criminal division, numbers further decreased with just 82 new cases, while clearance rates rose to 141.5 per cent. The Court of Appeal also recorded a significant 151.1 per cent clearance rate in criminal appeals.