Financial sustainability

Financial sustainability

After several years operating with a deficit, we have ended the 2018–19 year with a small surplus. We’ve achieved this by focusing on some internal savings in the first six months of this calendar year despite ever-increasing demand for our services. We are now taking active steps to return to a sustainable budget, to avoid the large operating deficits that are forecast in the future, due to a range of demand pressures in the justice system.

We have been offered some one-off funding from the Victorian Department of Justice and Community Safety for 2019–20, while all state government departments and agencies’ baseline funding is being reviewed. While this cash injection offers us some temporary relief, we are still preparing to implement some service delivery changes to manage the significant increase in demand we continue to experience. Some of these are a matter of good practice, and others will require further consultation in order to best operationalise them. We have also already identified savings in our corporate services area to assist in the sustainability task.

Preparations for implementing changes in child protection and family law services will be subject to further consultation and will inform our engagement with the National Partnership Agreement (NPA) negotiations. We will also be raising the summary and indictable crime demand growth problems we’re experiencing as a part of the base funding review. We’re undertaking the necessary preparations to implement changes to our summary crime and indictable crime services should funding not be realigned to meet the demand for these services. These are critical opportunities to grow our revenue, including from the Commonwealth.

Child protection and (civil) family violence legal services

We are proposing changes to respond to increasing demand for child protection legal help. Some of our proposals aim to address some existing practices, to contribute to creating more efficient court proceedings and a better experience for children and families. The proposals are:

  • requiring lawyers to seek adjournments and pursue costs when DHHS does not provide a report within the legislated timeframe of 3 days before hearing

Obtaining reports within the legislated timeframe provides a better experience for children and families as it gives families time to consider the report and recommendations prior to the court hearing and seek legal advice. It also allows lawyers to meet with children to obtain instructions before the hearing and prevents children unnecessarily being brought to Court. Enabling parties to provide instructions before a hearing may reduce the number of adjournments required because a party has not attended court.

  • removing interim accommodation order (IAO) adjournment fees and only paying for appearances where there is substantive progress of a matter

This change would align with VLA’s fee structure for summary crime matters and ensure a fee is only payable where there is substantive progress of the matter at a hearing, or where lawyers have sought costs due to DHHS non-compliance with legislative requirements for reports or other procedural orders.

  • limiting funding for legal representation for Children’s Court conferencing to only one conciliation conference per matter

Conciliation conferencing has been successful in diverting many Children’s Court matters from going to a trial. We maintain strong support for alternative dispute resolution that aims to avoid court contests, however this must be delivered in a cost-efficient manner and we are seeking that more matters resolve at the first conference.

  • limiting eligibility for grants of assistance to exclude parents who have not lived with their child for some time. Exceptions would apply, for example where this is due to family violence.

These child protection proposals would not be implemented before early 2020, to allow time for further feedback and consultation.

We have also slowed the implementation of our Child Protection Transformation actions. We committed to 36 actions for change arising from our 2017 Child Protection Legal Aid Services Review. We know these remain important but will need to consider how we can achieve some of these over a longer time period, including planned pilots of increased representation for children under 10 years of age and health-justice partnerships for women subject to unborn reports, and improved training offerings and professional development requirements for lawyers.

We are not proposing any changes to family violence intervention order legal services. Responding to family violence remains a critical priority, and we have also received additional funding in recent state budgets to increase these services to the community.

However, we are planning to remove all remaining duty lawyer services and grants of aid for adults for personal safety intervention order matters. Changes will not affect current services to children. These changes to personal safety intervention order services will be implemented later this year or early in 2020.

Family law legal services (Commonwealth-funded)

Outside of important new pilot programs, funding for Commonwealth family law services has not kept pace with population growth or inflation. We are considering proposals to align services with the available funding.

  • We will be suspending our current grant guideline for legal assistance for family law property matters when the new and separately funded family law property mediation trial commences from 1 January 2020.

We currently fund grants for legal assistance for family law property matters in limited circumstances and where related to a legally-aided family law parenting matter. We recognise this remains an area of unmet need for legal assistance and hope that the evaluation of the new trial will help to measure demand for this legal help and any funding requirements.

We are also considering:

  • reducing general family law duty lawyer support outside of the Family Advocacy and Support Services (FASS) enhanced duty lawyer service at the Melbourne and Dandenong family law court registries.

FASS has been evaluated as a highly successful service and funding for the FASS pilot was recently extended for another three years. As FASS has become the primary channel for duty lawyer services in the permanent family law court registries, we are considering reducing our remaining family law duty lawyer support.

This change would not proceed before 1 July 2020 to allow time for further consultation and in recognition of its impacts.

  • reducing access to Independent Children’s Lawyers.

We have limited control over the appointment of Independent Children’s Lawyers (ICLs) as they are court appointed. Legal Aid Commissions are asked to fund these appointments and do so in recognition of their importance in helping courts make decisions in the best interests of children, but no specific funding is received for this function. We are considering limiting the grounds on which VLA will fund ICLs appointed by the courts or capping the number of appointments and creating a waitlist to prioritise appointments for funding. We also propose to remove instructing solicitor fees for ICLs again.

These changes to ICL funding would not proceed before early 2020, to allow time for further feedback and consultation and acknowledging their impacts.

Criminal and civil law legal services

We will raise the summary crime demand growth problems we’re experiencing as a part of the baseline funding review. We are considering options to better align our summary crime services to capacity and will consult further on these before implementation, depending on the outcome of the baseline funding review and other changes to the system. 

In light of the significant growth in the number and complexity of matters in indictable crime in recent years, we are seeking to find more efficient ways to manage trials and to make systemic improvements with our stakeholders, including by:

  • developing options to encourage early appropriate resolution.
  • better align eligibility for pre-sentence expert reports with County and Supreme Court practice notes.  

We are also continuing to consult on the impacts of removing the civil guideline for grants of assistance for infringements.

Next steps

We are seeking feedback on the proposals above before we proceed, including on potential unintended impacts or practical considerations for implementation.

You can contact the relevant senior managers at Victoria Legal Aid or provide written feedback to consultation@vla.vic.gov.au

We will revisit the implementation of these changes following further consultation, the outcome of the baseline funding review and again once the outcome of the NPA negotiations are known. We will advise on the start date for any proposals going ahead before they are implemented.

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