Reflecting on our progress and challenges in improving child protection legal services

Reflecting on our progress and challenges in improving child protection legal services

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Photo of young people painting a wall

In the two years since we released our Child Protection Legal Aid Services Review we have delivered on some flagship actions to improve our services for children and their families.

‘The aim of the review was to establish a system of child protection legal services that is high quality, consistent and timely, and better supports the most vulnerable children and families in Victoria,’ Executive Director of Family, Youth and Children’s Law, Nicole Rich said.

‘While financial resources remain tight, I’m pleased that we have been able to deliver a number of important projects towards this aim in the past year – we wouldn’t have been able to do this without the insights and support of panel practitioners, Aboriginal legal services, service users and partners including the Children’s Court of Victoria and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).’

Nicole Rich, Executive Director, Family Youth and Children's Law.

Supporting practitioners

Ensuring high-quality legal assistance for children was a major focus of the review.

In March this year, we published a new guide for children’s lawyers in child protection matters to help them carry out their role confidently and effectively. Representing children in child protection proceedings: a guide for direct instructions and best interests lawyers provides an overview of the lawyer’s role – whether acting in either a direct instructions or best interests capacity – and covers key issues including the lawyer-child relationship, information gathering and analysis, confidentiality, and children’s needs. Importantly, our practice standards have been updated to help embed the elements of good legal practice outlined in the guide.

Also in March, we released our first ever duty lawyer guidelines for child protection, which set out the different types of services to be delivered by the duty lawyer service, and the eligibility criteria for accessing a duty lawyer.

‘These guidelines create consistency and transparency in the delivery of duty lawyer services across the state,’ Nicole said.

To support the duty lawyer guidelines, in May 2019 we introduced a new intake and referral process for child protection clients to access legal assistance. The process also ensures Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are given the first choice of a referral to an Aboriginal legal service where one is available.

Underpinning this process are two important developments – a new protocol between Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) and DHHS which documents our role in managing referrals for legal assistance, and a newly-developed online system called HALO for VLA administrative staff to record and make referrals. HALO has been through intensive testing and is currently being implemented across metropolitan and regional Victoria using a staged approach.

Supporting partners

Other major developments over the past twelve months include new funding for the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and Djirra to expand their child protection legal work, and the commencement of the Independent Family Advocacy and Support (IFAS) service.

'Both of these projects are testament to the important input we received to our review from community agencies, service users and others,’ Nicole said.

‘To be truly responsive, we recognised that VLA needed to think beyond the traditional court-based delivery of legal services and provide holistic, culturally-appropriate support to help people navigate the child protection system.’

Our community legal education (CLE) strategy is also complete, and the CLE team is now busy planning the development of new legal information resources to respond to the gaps identified in consultations for the strategy.

Looking ahead

As part of our efforts to return to a sustainable budget, we have had to slow down the implementation of some Child Protection Transformation projects, and put others on hold.

In coming months, we will continue work on several existing actions to bed them down in practice.

We will also be working with our regional offices and practice partners to develop regional child protection networks and regular court user meetings as this action was delayed last year.

We remain committed to identifying and responding to the legal needs of young people in out of home care, and will liaise with young people, peak bodies and practitioners to progress this work in coming months.

We have made some progress toward improving access to legal assistance for people in prison or hospital, through including them in the eligibility criteria in our duty lawyer guidelines, and negotiating changes to DHHS forms to ensure VLA is alerted as to someone’s location as early as possible. We will continue to explore options to support participation for eligible people wherever possible.

At present, work to develop more comprehensive professional development for child protection lawyers is on hold, as is the development of a joint workforce strategy with DHHS.

‘These projects remain of high importance, and will be prioritised if additional resources become available,’ Nicole said.

Other projects on hold include the proposed Health Justice Partnership, a pilot of increased best interests representation for children, and funding for additional in-house child protection lawyers and for a third community legal centre to join Loddon Campaspe CLC and Women’s Legal Service Victoria, in providing child protection services.

More information

If you would like to know more information about any our Child Protection Transformation work, please contact the team on childprotectiontransformation@vla.vic.gov.au.

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