This evening I wish to make some comments on the Auditor-General’s report tabled on 20 August in relation to access to legal aid.
While the Auditor-General is complimentary of Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) for its performance in this dire financial environment, he warns that limiting eligibility criteria in order to achieve financial sustainability has serious consequences for access to justice.
He is also concerned about the VLA’s performance monitoring framework and whether it adequately reports to its board and the public about achieving statutory objectives.
The VLA plays a crucial role in our society by providing legal services to those who cannot afford them and are most in need.
Victorians who come into contact with a vast array of legal jurisdictions are assisted by VLA. Among them, of course, are victims of family violence, children and families amidst family law disputes, and those in contact with the criminal system and jurisdictions such as the Mental Health Review Board.
VLA also does essential work in areas such as immigration. The organisation provides assistance to those who otherwise simply would not receive it. These services contribute to Victorians having fair access to justice and an opportunity to be heard and treated fairly within our legal system.
VLA also provides outreach services to ensure that rural Victorians are not left without assistance. These services include the funding of community legal centres across the state, regional VLA offices and visiting services such as advice visits to several prisons.
During the reporting period we saw an increase in demand for VLA’s services by the community.
The factors identified as contributing to the increase include the current government’s sentencing policies; an increase in family violence; an increase in child protection activity; an increase in prisoner numbers; and the current economic conditions.
Despite increased demand VLA experienced funding cuts from the Napthine government in the 2012-13 reporting period. In that year, the government decided to incorporate a temporary funding increase to VLA’s base funding for 2010-11 and 2011-12 rather than making it an additional sum, which would have increased the overall funding.
At the time of the review, this was estimated to be around $5.8 million to $13.7 million less than the funding required to meet increased demand.
VLA also relies significantly on revenue received from the public purse fund, from which VLA can receive up to 35 per cent fund subject to the discretion of the Attorney-General. In 2007-08, 25 per cent of VLA’s revenue was received from the fund, an amount of $31.9 million.
For the last three years VLA has received $25.7 million from the fund, comprising just 15 per cent of its revenue. This is a reduction of $6.2 million. In 20122013, VLA reported a deficit of $9.3 million.
In response, VLA was forced to reassess the guidelines of eligibility for legal assistance. The organisation was no longer able to meet demand while maintaining existing levels of service.
The consequences were restricted eligibility, with fewer people qualifying for a grant of legal assistance. VLA reacted in accordance with its statutory obligations, making only the most vulnerable Victorians a priority for funding. Priority clients include people living on a low income, in custody or detention, children and those experiencing or at risk of experiencing family violence.
The Auditor-General concludes that VLA is performing its role in delivering legal services across Victoria.
These services are being provided in an environment of increased demand and limited fixed funding. The tension between these two factors is identified as further eroding access to justice for the most vulnerable Victorians.
Insofar as measures within its control, the Auditor-General recommended that VLA review its performance reporting framework to ensure a clear indicator for whether statutory obligations are being met.
Further, the Auditor-General recommends that VLA assesses the awareness of priority clients as to the services available, and a review of the legal information line service established by VLA to improve access to legal assistance. The organisation has been forced to adapt to a financial environment created by — —