Changes to our services due to COVID-19

Changes to our services due to COVID-19

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have made some changes to our services to protect the health and wellbeing of the community. This page has information for private practitioners about changes to our programs and processes, correct as at 4 August 2020. We will update this page regularly with the latest information about our services and continue to support you through these changes as best we can.

We appreciate you working with us to deliver legal assistance to those who need it in new, innovative and safe ways.

On this page:

Alternate process for lodging applications for legal assistance

Access to paper-based legal aid application forms may be difficult in current circumstances. An alternate process that many practitioners already use is:

  1. Fill out the ATLAS application on the web portal as you take instructions from the client.
  2. Save the draft and generate it as a PDF document.
  3. Where the client has access to email, send the draft application PDF to the client to review and use Application for legal assistance – email declaration record (docx, 191.11 KB). In summary, you send the attached pro forma email to your client, and the client’s response provides the declaration. This form is not recommended for child clients.
  4. Where the client does not have access to email, use Application for legal assistance – telephone declaration record (docx, 194.15 KB). This contains a script for you to use in a phone conversation with your client to obtain their declaration, as well as a declaration for you the practitioner to make.

Appearance fees

You can apply for and manage grants of aid as usual. Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) is taking a flexible approach as to how an ‘appearance’ is interpreted. We understand that lawyers are now ‘appearing’ in various ways – such as via telephone link up, audio visual conferencing, filing of consent orders to be made in Chambers and provision of written submissions instead of an oral hearing.

Please rest assured that VLA will continue to fund panel practitioners for their work in the face of COVID-19.

Our Assignments team is experiencing a higher than usual volume of email and telephone inquiries. We appreciate your patience as we respond as quickly as possible to everyone.

Applications for our practitioner panels

If you are applying to be an individual certifier on any Panel for COVID-19 related reasons, please use the Urgent application for COVID-19-related reasons individual certifier application form (pdf, 238.42 KB) or the accessible Word version (105.11 KB).

COVID-19 related reasons may include:

  • your firm’s only Individual Certifier is not working for COVID-related reasons, and a new individual certifier must be appointed for the firm to continue work on the panel
  • your firm is diversifying its practice in response to changes in demand for services as a result of COVID-19
  • because of COVID-19, clients are unable to access legal services in your area and you wish to fill this gap.

If you require an accessible Word version of the application form, please contact the Panels Coordinator at panels@vla.vic.gov.au or on (03) 9606 5264.

If you are applying to be an individual certifier for non-COVID-19 reasons

COVID-19 is continuing to impact our capacity to assess physical file samples that you would usually submit in support of an application. While we are in the process of developing alternative electronic file submission platforms, currently we can only assess sample files in support of your application sent to us by email. Where file samples are required, please electronically scan your paper documents sample file and attach it to emails, ensuring each annexure does not exceed 10 Megabytes in size. 

For further assistance, please contact the Panels Coordinator on (03) 9606 5264.

  • ICL, Family Violence, Family Law Panels: the usual application and assessment procedures apply
  • Indictable Crime Panel: we will shortly resume accepting applications from non- LIV Accredited Specialists in Criminal Law.
  • Child Protection Panel, and the Summary Crime Panel and its Youth Crime subset: Submit the usual application form and send in your sample files electronically as set out above.

If you are submitting a firm application, please complete the online firm application form as usual.

Read more about our practitioner panels.

Changes to means test in response to COVID-19 economic packages

The Federal Government has introduced economic packages to support people who have lost employment or are experiencing reduced employment because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are committed to providing legal aid services to Victoria’s most disadvantaged people. To ensure these payments do not exclude disadvantaged Victorians from getting legal assistance when they need it, we have amended our means test to ensure the new packages do not affect eligibility.

New rules under the means test

From 22 April 2020, the following rules apply to payments made under the coronavirus economic packages:

  • The two Economic Support Payments of $750 made to eligible pension and income support recipients are excluded from an applicant’s assets in the means test.
  • The Coronavirus Supplement, paid to eligible income support payment recipients over the next six months, are excluded from assessable income in the means test.

What this means for practitioners

Clarification for other Commonwealth payments

  • JobSeeker payments (formerly Newstart Allowance) and other ongoing income support payments remain assessable income and accordingly should be included in income in the means test.
  • JobKeeper payments, which supplement or replace employment income, are payable to eligible employers to enable them to pay their eligible employees’ salary or wages. These payments are assessable income for the individuals who receive them and should be included as income in the means test.

Child protection update

VLA and the Children’s Court have made changes to the child protection duty lawyer service in response to COVID-19 and the Children’s Court’s Practice Direction 1 of 2020.

Download an information sheet Changes to duty lawyer services for protection applications by emergency care due to COVID-19 (docx, 189.85 KB).

The new process has minimal changes to the usual referral process via HALO, but it enables the intake and referral tasks and duty lawyer tasks to occur remotely.

In summary, the new process is:

  1. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) provides a Form B for emergency care applications to VLA, as set out in the DHHS VLA Information Sharing and Referral Protocol
  2. VLA refers eligible parties to a duty lawyer and advises Court of the referrals. Parties should be instructed to not attend Court.
  3. If a party is not eligible, VLA will advise the registry and will provide legal information and referrals.
  4. Duty lawyers will take instructions and negotiate with the DHHS lawyer and other lawyers. This will be done by telephone/video conference by VLA lawyers. CLC and private lawyers may choose to communicate with other lawyers in the same way.
  5. Duty lawyers/DHHS lawyer then contact Court to advise:
    1. If the matter has resolved by consent and check whether appearance is required
    2. If the matter has not resolved by consent, that they will appear (and request timeframes)
  6. Duty lawyers will appear in matters requiring an appearance. VLA staff will appear in person until the Court’s audio-visual link (AVL) system is operational, but after that time, will only appear by video link.

How does this apply to the new practice direction?

The practice direction restricts listings to five urgent hearing types:

  • first hearing of protection applications by emergency care
  • first hearing of breach application by emergency care
  • first hearing of urgent interim variation of a Family Reunification Order
  • applications where DHHS propose the child should get into secure welfare
  • first hearing of application for new Interim Accommodation Order (IAO) following placement breakdown​.

The new duty lawyer process applies to the first four hearing types. Where a new IAO is sought, there will be current proceedings and all parties should have a lawyer on the record (unless self-represented). Those matters will follow the usual process where DHHS notifies the lawyers on record about the new application and they do not come through the duty lawyer service.

Fees

Where a private practitioner duty lawyer accepts a duty lawyer referral, takes instructions and appears the usual fees are payable, even if these activities are undertaken remotely by telephone or AVL.

Future changes

Please monitor the Children’s Court of Victoria website for future changes to court operations.

Family Dispute Resolution Service update

FDRS continues to operate fully, using remote working and online services.

Our case managers continue to individually assess cases for suitability for family dispute resolution. They use phone interviews with parties as part of that process, as has always been the case.

FDRS still provides up to two conferences with a single grant of aid for parenting cases. This may provide flexibility for many families who may only be able to finalise interim arrangements at this time.

We understand that the current situation places additional significant stress on everyone in the community, particularly separated families. Families will respond in different ways, but many are likely to require time to discuss specific issues, such as communication and steps to keep children and family members safe in response to the virus.

We are now running all conferences by teleconference using our pre-existing teleconference mediation processes. Our Chairpersons are familiar with the process and will clearly outline it to participants at the outset of conferences, including how shuttle or joint sessions will work.

To ensure our services continue to run smoothly:

  • Please send all correspondence via email to fdrs@vla.vic.gov.au, as we can no longer collect posted mail.
  • Please obtain email addresses for your client and the other party (or their lawyer) so that FDRS may send correspondence by email.
  • Please let our case managers know if you and/or your clients are likely to find it difficult to find a private space to talk for the duration of a conference.
  • Please provide a direct phone number (eg. mobile) for use during the conference, for clients and lawyers.

If you’d like to discuss anything related to family mediations, please contact FDRS Manager Freia Carlton via email Freia.carlton@vla.vic.gov.au.

Good practice guide for meeting with children via technology

As we all adapt to meeting clients in new ways, lawyers who work with children may need to consider if it’s appropriate to speak with young people using technology like video calls. We have adapted a guide from Legal Aid New South Wales for lawyers working with children. This guide is particularly for lawyers working with child clients in child protection, family law and youth crime proceedings, but much of the content may be relevant for those working with adult clients as well.

Download Good practice guide for meeting with children via technology (docx, 177.57 KB).

Influencing factors in ATLAS

ATLAS is our online system for practitioners to lodge and track legal aid applications, extensions and claims. In order to better track any COVID-19 related services, COVID-19 has been added to the list of ‘influencing factors’ in ATLAS.

Read more about when to select COVID-19 as an influencing factor for your client’s matter.

Invoice payment

We are supporting all our suppliers by facilitating payments in line with the economic package to support businesses and jobs announced by the premier. To ensure the maximum benefit, it is essential that invoices are submitted to VLA as soon as possible. Practitioners are reminded that VLA’s practice standard is that practitioners submit claims to VLA for every billable event or work item at each stage of the matter and within 30 days of the finalisation of each stage/conclusion of the matter.

In order to ensure you receive payment as soon as possible, our Finance team will be conducting two legal pay runs per week. Remittances will be issued as normal. Payment terms ongoing will be ten days on certified claims, until further notice, but we will be processing invoices as soon as possible and aim to pay within 5 days. This is a significant reduction from the current payment terms of up to 30 days.

Please refrain from sending hard copy invoices, instead we ask that you send all invoices via email. This is due to potential disruptions associated with COVID-19 and will also mean you receive your payment quicker.

Judge only trials

The Victorian Parliament has passed legislation permitting the trial of indictable Victorian offences in the Supreme and County courts by judge alone. We have prepared a comprehensive guidance note on the legislation and what to consider when it comes to judge only trials. 

Mobile phone contact with clients on remand

VLA has arranged with the Melbourne Custody Centre for practitioners to be able to contact remand clients appearing in the Bail and Remand Court via mobile phone, rather than in person.

Information about how to contact remand clients via mobile phone is available on our LawGuru website. A password is required for access to the site. To request a password, visit Access to LawGuru.

If you have any queries about the new contact arrangements, please email Managing Lawyer, Bail and Remand Court, Sharon Keith at Sharon.keith@vla.vic.gov.au.

New processes in lieu of obtaining client signatures (for adults)

Recognising that practitioners are not currently delivering services face-to-face, we have developed alternate processes in lieu of client signatures on legal aid application forms.

We have removed the requirement for people to sign their applications in person during the pandemic. Instead, we are relying on telephone or email declarations by applicants. The declarations are not statutory declarations and they are not made pursuant to the Oaths and Affirmations Act 2018. They are for the purpose of satisfying VLA that an Applicant understands that the information is correct.

Where clients have access to email: Use Application for legal assistance – email declaration record (docx, 191.11 KB). In summary, you send the attached pro forma email to your client, and the client’s response provides the declaration. This form is not recommended for child clients.

Where clients do not have access to email: Use Application for legal assistance – telephone declaration record (docx, 194.15 KB). This contains a simple script for you to use in a phone conversation with your client to obtain their declaration, as well as a declaration for you the practitioner to make. This document has been updated on 23 April 2020 in response to practitioner feedback.

Practice resources

LawGuru

Practice resources relating to COVID-19 are available through our LawGuru website and continually being updated in response to changes.

Access to LawGuru is available to private practitioners and community legal centre staff by password. To request a password, see Access to LawGuru.

The site has information from each of the practice areas and includes information about:

  • how VLA is responding to COVID-19
  • changes to court processes
  • bail applications and summaries of recent COVID-19 related court decisions
  • responses from state and Commonwealth governments
  • advice for separated parents
  • powers and penalties for breaching stay-at-home orders
  • information from various organisations about how they are responding to COVID-19
  • information about employment, Centrelink and tenancy.

Precedent Collection

Our professional support team develop and maintain precedent collections and practice resources to support all lawyers providing legal aid services to clients. Access to our maintained precedent collections is available via a Sharepoint platform. To request access, email Managing Lawyer, Professional Support Hala Atwa at hala.atwa@vla.vic.gov.au.

CPD Library

VLA has an ever-growing library of professional legal education videos available on Vimeo. Practice areas include criminal, civil and family law, as well as child protection and other legal areas. Email ple@vla.vic.gov.au for access to these recordings.

Private practitioner duty lawyer scheme arrangements

Practice Directions issued by the Magistrates’ Court in response to COVID-19 are likely to impact rostered private practitioner duty lawyer schemes, including the potential for some lists to be cancelled or scaled back. The Children’s Court has also issued a Practice Direction and we have implemented changes to duty lawyer services. These will be monitored to determine if further changes are needed.

We appreciate that any changes to these arrangements will have a significant impact on some practitioners. We are assessing the implications for each scheme and will communicate with practitioners about any changes as early as possible.

Quality audits process

The Quality Audits team are dedicated to the safety of our practice partners and staff.

To continue quality audits with minimal disruption, our practice partners are required to provide electronic copies of their files. To make this easier, practitioners need only provide three files in most instances and have an increased time period of four weeks to do this. FIles can be provided by USB stick or through online access to nominated files for audit.

For more information contact the Quality Audit team, via email qualityaudits@vla.vic.gov.au or phone direct on (03) 9269 0558 or (03) 9269 0413.

Telephone declaration in lieu of signature (for children)

The ‘Application for legal assistance – email declaration record’ is not appropriate for child clients. Please use this form Telephone declaration process for children (docx, 261.74 KB) featuring a script for a conversation with a child client. This document has been updated on 23 April 2020 in response to practitioner feedback.

WebEx guide for online hearings

In response to COVID-19, Victorian Courts are using CISCO WebEx to conduct online hearings. This Guide sets out instructions for using WebEx – key functions, how to set and participate in an online hearing.

Before doing a WebEx online hearing you should:

For clients

Read our Quick guide for clients – online hearings in the Magistrates’ Court (docx, 245.9 KB)

More information

If you have an enquiry about our COVID-19 response, email covid19@vla.vic.gov.au.

Read about 1 September justice sector updates due to COVID-19

Read about 4 August justice sector updates due to COVID-19

 
 

Read about 13 July justice sector updates due to COVID-19

Read about 1 July justice sector updates due to COVID-19

Read about 16 June justice sector updates due to COVID-19

Read about 31 March justice sector updates due to COVID-19

Read about 26 March justice sector updates due to COVID-19

Read about 18 March justice sector updates due to COVID-19

Read about 15 April justice sector updates due to COVID-19.

Read a news update about our services, correct as at 20 March 2020.

Read our Find Legal Answers topic on COVID-19 coronavirus.

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