A BALLARAT lawyer has recommended an independent review of Victoria Legal Aid’s expenditure, warning that the organisation’s budget blowout will lead to a dysfunctional court system.
Criminal lawyer Scott Belcher said the proposed changes to VLA’s eligibility guidelines would have far-reaching consequences after it posted a $3.1 million deficit in its annual report.
In December, VLA announced changes to 16 of its eligibility guidelines – the biggest in its history – to ensure it is “economically sustainable”.
Among them, only young people likely to be given a detention order, first-time offenders or those put under the supervision of the Department of Human Services will be eligible for a legal assistance grant.
Mr Belcher has previously spoken out about slow court procedures, which he says will be made even slower with VLA’s budget cuts.
“Court lists will clog up when older cases are mixed in with fresh cases,” he said.
“Lists will explode into impossible lengths ... requiring extra prosecutors, extra magistrates and extra court staff.
“The high-quality duty lawyer service will not cope with additional and complicated cases.
“Many cases cannot be just dealt with on the day, as they require further evidence, plea material and law to be considered.”
Mr Belcher said the inevitable departure of private lawyers would cause “a compounding headache” for the court, with the court process slowing further as a result of more people representing themselves.
“Court staff, police or even magistrates will be drawn into giving legal advice when that is not their role as it’s a clear conflict of interest.”
“Time will also be wasted by courts on frequent defendant comments in open court like ‘I want to plead guilty but I’m not really guilty’ or ‘I agree with the charges but the police summary is a load of rubbish’.”
Mr Belcher went further, suggesting VLA’s management may also benefit from an independent review of internal and external expenditure.
“I’m not suggesting a witch hunt of the managing director and board, but to see if there is an appropriate balance between lawyers in private practice and state-employed lawyers,” he said.
“Monopolies of any kind are never desirable in government or the private sector as they diminish consumer choice as to service providers.”