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In a move that highlights a critical shortage of funding, Victoria’s only legal service for First Nations communities has been forced to implement a freeze on new clients. By Denham Sadler.

Victoria’s Indigenous legal service forced to turn away clients

Nerita Waight (second from right) with staff of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.
Nerita Waight (second from right) with staff of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.
Credit: Supplied

For almost two months now, Victoria’s only Indigenous legal service has been forced to turn away people in dire need of assistance.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) has a client freeze in place and is not taking on any new ones until at least September, due to a lack of funding and a “critically overstretched” workforce.

The freeze has been extremely difficult for VALS lawyers working on the ground across the state. All client service officers are Indigenous and are often working in the communities where they were born and raised. 

“It’s very difficult for us to turn away our community members looking for legal assistance,” VALS acting regional team leader Jasmine Day tells The Saturday Paper. “It’s heartbreaking for our solicitors.

“They love their jobs and they’re amazing at their jobs, so for them not to be able to take on clients because they are overworked due to funding… We can only do what we can with the funding we have.”

Day says she has already had to refuse five people looking for legal assistance. While VALS is providing referrals to other community legal services, it is often seen as the “last resort” for clients.

“We have to remind them that it’s nothing personal, it’s due to a client freeze and it’s out of our control,” she says. “VALS was created to assist the Indigenous community … and having the freeze stops us doing that.”

The client freeze was implemented in the criminal law practice in mid-June and will run for at least three months. It was needed because the workloads for lawyers were becoming an occupational health and safety issue, VALS chief executive Nerita Waight says. “The client freeze has been difficult for our communities and our staff,” Waight tells The Saturday Paper. “Our criminal law practice supports our clients during what is often a really distressing time. There are no comparable alternatives for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people needing culturally safe advice and representation for criminal legal matters – every other option is a compromise.”

Court backlogs due to Covid-19 lockdowns have exacerbated this situation, along with difficulties recruiting new lawyers. 

 

VALS was established in 1973 as a community-controlled co-operative society and is currently the only Victorian organisation to be funded under the federal government’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services program.

The vast bulk of its total revenue in 2020-21 came from government funding, with the Commonwealth providing $5.4 million and the Victorian government allocating $6.4 million.

The VALS criminal law practice is about the size of a small suburban Legal Aid office, but covers the entire state, representing Indigenous clients in every court in Victoria. The team has 12 lawyers, one paralegal and four legal secretaries.

The organisation is currently stretched “extremely thin”, VALS acting director of legal services Juergen Kaehne says, and the freeze was needed to protect the health of workers and to ensure existing clients are given adequate support.

“It’s taking a toll individually on our lawyers,” Kaehne tells The Saturday Paper. “They’re stretched, they’re overworked, and they’re stressed. And that stress is affecting their health.

“Our lawyers care about our clients, which is why they want to do as much as they can for their clients, but there is a point where we simply can’t do everything for everyone. 

“We implemented a freeze so that we could reduce those file loads and concentrate on the files we have, to try to get that workload down a bit.”

The case loads of lawyers at VALS typically far exceed those in comparable jobs and are far higher than the sector’s recommendations. Those working at the organisation are also on a substantially lower salary than the industry standards.

“Our solicitors are working over capacity times by 100,” says Jasmine Day. “They were over capacity with client files – over by a lot – and their clients weren’t getting the full service that they need and deserve.”

Lawyers from other areas of VALS’ operations have been moved onto criminal law case files to try to lighten the load in recent weeks.

The decision to stop taking on new clients and to actively turn away those in need was “agonising”, Kaehne says.

“It’s extremely difficult for lawyers who care about their job and what they do,” he says. “They have to turn around and say, ‘I can’t help you’, when help is what they do.”

 

The Victorian government is in discussions with VALS over the funding issues and to help end the client freeze. 

“We want to lift the new client freeze for our criminal practice as quickly as possible,” Waight says. “We’re working hard with our government funders to find a solution and we are confident that we can get there soon.

“The board and I are committed to ensuring that we get to a point where every Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person who wants help from VALS can get that help from VALS. We’ve made some big steps towards that goal, but we need a bit more help from government.”

A spokesperson for the Victorian government said it was aware of the important work VALS does.

“We know how vital the work of VALS is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Victorians and we’re focused on ensuring that the Aboriginal community has access to culturally appropriate legal services across the state,” the spokesperson said.

“We will continue to work with VALS to ensure they can provide quality, culturally safe legal services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria.”

The Victorian government committed $18 million over five years to VALS from July 2020. The service will also receive $31.33 million over five years from the federal government.

But the $6.4 million VALS received from the state government in the 2020-21 financial year, which included some additional funding, pales in comparison to the $200 million that was allocated for new police tasers, and the more than $1 billion set aside for a prison expansion program.

VALS is also pushing for additional funding to fully launch 12 local offices around Victoria, including in Mildura, Frankston, Ballarat and Horsham. This request has been knocked back for eight consecutive years by the state government.

According to VALS, the new offices would cost $6 million to set up and $7 million annually, adding up to $30 million over the forward estimates.

The organisation has also asked for additional resourcing to support First Nations people through the Stolen Generations reparations package and the new spent convictions scheme, which allows applicants to clear expired convictions from their criminal record. This funding request was also knocked back.

The organisation says it also needs funding for some basic upgrades. Its main office does not have adequate soundproofing, which makes online court appearances difficult.

The broader community legal centres sector received almost $7 million in extra funding over five years in the Victorian budget in May.

 

Individuals who are turned away by VALS due to the client freeze are being referred to other community legal services. But these organisations are also substantially under-resourced and underfunded.

“All of our clients can’t afford to go to private lawyers,” Kaehne says. “Community legal services are a vital piece of that administration of justice. We’re the last resort. In some respects referral is also a last resort, in the hope that someone will help these people out.”

VALS is the only First Nations legal service in Victoria, and Kaehne says it needs proper support from the state government to carry out this important work.

“They need to look long and hard at why VALS is here and what it represents, and we need funding to carry on services for our communities,” he says. “VALS is here. It’s a valuable service for Indigenous communities. We need help to help the Indigenous community.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "‘Agonising decision’".

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Denham Sadler is a freelance writer living in the Kulin Nation.

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