Legal Aid blow out hits Ballarat law firms hard

TWO of Ballarat’s biggest criminal law practices are expecting tough times ahead following eligibility changes by Victoria Legal Aid, who blew out their budget by $3.1 million last financial year.

Mike Wardell Barrister and Solicitor, the only legal practice in Ballarat dedicated solely to criminal law, have already lost one staff member because of the changes and are expecting more to come.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Harper, of Jeremy Harper and Associates, said his business would be impacted in “an adverse way”.

But Mr Harper and Mr Wardell both said those worst affected by the changes, which came about as VLA worked to reduce their budget, would be their clients.

Eligibility changes due to come into effect on January 7 include funding priority for those facing incarceration, and an increase in the threshold to obtain VLA funding for matters regarding unpaid infringements from $1000 to $5000. 

“Probably 80 per cent of our clients are subject to legal aid funding and about 90 per cent of those will no longer qualify for funding,” Mr Wardell said.

“A lot of our clients suffer from disabilities, whether intellectual or otherwise, are young in age, are from dysfunctional or difficult backgrounds and are highly vulnerable, hence why not assisting those who could be rehabilitated is distressing for the community as a whole.”

Mr Wardell said his practice, which employs three administration staff and one other solicitor, could expect “significant staff lay offs”.

“We were approaching Christmas quite positively and looking forward to the New Year but suddenly the rug’s been pulled from under us,” he said. 

“Everything’s been put on hold.”

Mr Harper said that of his clients involved in criminal or family violence proceedings, at least half were legal aid funded and most would now miss out.

“Many of the people we represent are battlers with one sort of disability or another, and sometimes because of their personal circumstances they’re not well equipped to battle the system without assistance. 

“That’s where legal aid is supposed to step in and ensure they have good representation and that justice is done.”

This all comes after The Age on Monday reported that VLA had given private lawyers and staff a pay rise of more than $7 million a year before announcing the changes to its eligibility guidelines to quell its funding crisis.

Lawyers held a rally protesting the changes outside the Melbourne County Court on December 11.

evan schuurman.fairfaxmedia.com.au

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