MS TIERNEY (Minister for Training and Skills) (18:54:41) — These new laws deliver on our election commitment to improve access to justice for all Victorians, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our community. Before the 2014 election we did commit to a review of access to justice if we won office, and that is exactly what we did. In the 2015 Access to Justice Review undertaken by the Department of Justice and Regulation the department made wideranging recommendations for improving our legal assistance sector and our civil justice system.
In response to the review the 2017–18 budget provided $34.7 million to boost Victoria Legal Aid (VLA), VCAT and the courts to ensure more Victorians get the legal information and support that they need to solve their many legal problems. Following on from that investment this bill will implement many of the legislative recommendations coming out of that review in order to make our justice system more efficient and of course easier to understand and easier to access. Of course it is always better to avoid having a legal dispute if we can, but when we do it is important that the legal system is as accessible, as quick and as fair as it can be so we can get on with our lives as soon as possible.
In respect to legal aid I think all of us, particularly on this side of the chamber, would agree that legal aid plays a very big role in helping ordinary Victorians resolve their disputes. Every year VLA helps thousands of Victorians work through the very common legal problems that they face. To strengthen the VLA and the legal assistance sector more broadly the bill establishes a clearer governance and coordination framework for our legal assistance sector to ensure that government, the VLA and our excellent community legal centres are working together to make sure legal assistance services are delivered where they are needed most.
We are also lifting the cap on the available funding for VLA from the Public Purpose Fund run by the Victorian Legal Services Board from 35 per cent to 40 per cent to help make more resources available for the legal assistance sector. These changes build on the 2017–18 budget’s investment in access to justice, which delivered $7.23 million for additional legal aid grants, $6.85 million to expand VLA’s legal help phone service and to modernise their website, $2.59 million for more duty lawyers and $1.27 million to provide more translating and interpreting services, and we know that there is always a need in that area.
In respect of the Victoria Law Foundation, to ensure the evidence base for future reform and investment in our civil justice system is robust the foundation will be given a new role as a research centre for access to justice, legal need and civil justice needs.
In respect to VCAT, the bill makes a number of important procedural changes at VCAT to help it remain accessible and affordable for many years to come. A wider range of qualified people, such as accredited mediators, will be able to conduct compulsory conferences before hearings at VCAT to help ensure more disputes are resolved by agreement where possible. To help speed up the resolution of VCAT disputes and support future innovation, documents will be able to be served on parties by email. We are also removing some of the complicated steps needed to enforce VCAT orders in the Magistrates Court so that it is easier to make sure a VCAT decision in your favour is honoured by the other side. We will come back to that, Ms Pennicuik.
We are also allowing family members or friends to come with you to VCAT proceedings and attend as a personal support person if you need it in addition to advocates and interpreters. And to ensure that more small civil disputes are resolved more quickly and easily, we are lifting the threshold for a small civil claim from $10 000 to $15 000. We believe this reform means that more everyday disputes can be resolved at VCAT at a low cost to both parties and without lawyers. We also give parties to small claims more time to request written reasons for a VCAT decision by allowing 14 days to request reasons instead of requiring parties to ask for them on the day. These are commonsense changes, and they build on the $6.26 million provided to VCAT in the budget to increase alternative dispute resolution services for small claims at VCAT and the $4.55 million to modernise and streamline processes.
In respect to protective costs orders, to support litigants throughout the court system courts will be given clearer powers to make protective costs orders to cap the legal costs of disadvantaged Victorians in legal proceedings which raise public interest issues. Legal costs can discourage vulnerable people from pursuing their rights, and this reform will help reduce that barrier.
In respect to court fees, we want to improve access to the Magistrates Court and the County Court. Those courts will be given the ability to charge court fees in line with a party’s ability to pay. This change will allow fairer court fees to be set depending on whether you hold a concession card or are an individual, a small business, a large company or a government department. All in all we believe that there are many sensible changes in this bill and it will help Victoria’s legal system to continue to provide fair and just outcomes for all Victorians long into the future.
If I may, I just want to cover off on a couple of issues that have been raised by people here. First was an issue raised by Dr Carling-Jenkins in relation to births, deaths and marriages. Essentially it will not be possible in Victoria to alter the record of sex in the way Dr Carling-Jenkins described — that is, without notice to a married partner that you share a life with. According to the law in Victoria, which is not being changed by this bill, to apply to alter your sex on the register you must be over the age of 18, be Victorian and have undergone sex affirmation surgery. While a person’s birth certificate is a document private to that person and the registrar, it is implausible that a married person who lives and shares a life with a partner under the same roof could undergo sex affirmation surgery without their partner having noticed it. This amendment is, as Dr Carling-Jenkins accepted, consequential on commonwealth legislative changes and does not change the substantive requirement for altering the record of sex beyond the removal of the unmarried applicant rule.
In relation to protective costs, I believe I have enough time to quickly deal with this. This was a matter raised by Ms Pennicuik, and it relates to part 4, clause 8. I imagine that I will also deal with this in committee. Ms Pennicuik raised the issue of protective costs orders and the Consumer Action Law Centre’s concern that the court’s consideration of whether the party seeking the costs order claims damages or other form of financial compensation under the bill might inadvertently limit access to protective costs orders. As Ms Pennicuik is aware, the Attorney-General has written to the Consumer Action Law Centre to reassure them that the relevant provision does not limit the court’s discretion to award a protective costs order. Consideration of whether a party is seeking compensation for damages is just one factor among many that a court may choose or not choose to consider in any particular case.
The other matter that Ms Pennicuik raised is not in the bill. This is in relation to pro bono costs orders. Ms Pennicuik raised the issue of pro bono parties and costs orders and the Access to Justice Review‘s recommendations that parties represented pro bono should be able to obtain an order for costs. The government accepted this recommendation, and the Supreme and County courts have amended their rules and the Magistrates Court is considering the same rule change this month.
I hope some of those comments assist in terms of the operation of the committee that we will now enter into.
Motion agreed to.
Read second time.