Despite their alleged commitment to self-determination, the Victorian Government has failed to adequately support the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) in the 2021-22 State Budget, forcing the organisation to temporarily freeze its services to survive.

Currently, VALS does not have the financial resources to recruit new lawyers and manage the increased demand for their services.

Solicitors at the service average 130 case files — almost triple the sector recommendation.

The immense workload is an Occupational Health and Safety risk for staff who are, according to VALS, being paid less than other legal services.

Due to the extra demand, under-resourcing and concerns for staff wellbeing, VALS is being forced to freeze any new intakes.

This means from May to August, VALS’ Criminal Law and Family Law teams will not take on new matters and their Civil Legal team will delay expansion of their services to Gippsland.

“We have been working with the Andrews Government for years on our plan to deliver local, culturally safe legal services for Aboriginal people in Victoria. It is so bitterly disappointing that all that time and effort has been wasted when our resources are already stretched to the limit,” said VALS chief executive Nerita Waight.

“The decision to freeze new client intake has not been made lightly by myself and the Board.”

“It follows decades of chronic underfunding of our legal service, and the Victorian Government’s repeated decision to support and fund other sector stakeholders and service providers, but not the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

“It is with regret that we have concluded that freezing intake is the only viable option at this juncture.”

In August, if caseloads exceed the recommended 50 per solicitor the Board will determine if the freeze continues.

The Andrews Government announced on Thursday night it will invest $448 million into “Aboriginal people and statewide healing” as part of its 2021-22 State Budget.

“This year’s Budget delivers a record $448 million investment for Aboriginal people and statewide healing — including $98 million for Victoria’s commitments to self‑determination, truth and Treaty alone,” a spokesperson for the Victorian Government told NIT.

The Government has also invested in the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and $116 million to support the mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people in Victoria.

The Government also committed $43 million to preventing Aboriginal deaths in custody, which will see money funnelled into services such as Dardi Munwurro’s Ngarra Jarranounith Place for Aboriginal men and Baroona Youth Healing Centre.

The money will also create a new 20-bed Aboriginal Healing Unit for Aboriginal women in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.

Despite the commitment to preventing Aboriginal deaths in custody, the State Government has not wholly funded VALS’ place-based delivery model — which requires $26.5 million over four years to survive.

“We’re keen to work with VALS to help them start their place-based delivery model, with $2 million of new extra funding for a pilot program to establish the first of their new centres and to lay the necessary ground work and evidence for future expansion,” the Victorian Government spokesperson said.

“Ensuring Aboriginal Victorians have safe and culturally appropriate access to justice is important — that’s why we’re investing in programs and services across Victoria that build a stronger, fairer and more accessible justice system.”

The spokesperson also said the funding followed the “one-off funding” which was provided in the 2021-22 Budget “for first steps in planning and implementing the model”.

VALS’ place-based delivery model would see the service open hub offices in Mildura, Warrnambool, Bendigo, Wodonga and the Latrobe Valley, along with satellite offices in Horsham, Geelong, Shepparton, Bairnsdale and Frankston.

A hub office would be staffed by a criminal lawyer, a civil lawyer, a family/child protection lawyer, a legal secretary, and two Client Service Officers.

A satellite office would be staffed by a criminal lawyer, a family/child protection lawyer, a legal secretary, and a Client Service Officer.

Through such offices, VALS would be able to support Aboriginal people across the State in accessing culturally safe legal support and encourage self-determination at a grassroots level.

VALS said committing to wholly funding the place-based model would have achieved its commitments in the Aboriginal Justice Agreement and contributed to achieving the new Closing the Gap justice target.

“I know that Aboriginal people across Victoria will be angry and worried. I am too. But I cannot run a substandard legal service and put the welfare of our staff at risk,” Waight said.

“We will continue to use what resources we have to deliver high quality legal services to as many Aboriginal people as possible.”

“[Premier] Daniel Andrews and [Attorney-General] Jaclyn Symes have our plans for local, culturally safe legal services. They have the data that shows that demand for our services has overwhelmed our resources.

“They can fix this easily and I am hoping they will.”

By Rachael Knowles