Funding crisis hits legal aid

Victoria's legal aid service is facing a funding crisis which lawyers fear could jeopardise the justice and welfare of thousands of Victorians.

Victoria Legal Aid confirmed on Friday it was undertaking a full review of its "service guidelines" due to an "unprecedented demand" for its legal assistance.

Victoria Legal Aid managing director Bevan Warner also confirmed the organisation was facing a budget deficit which could be greater than the $3.1 million blowout it experienced last financial year.

"It's too early for us to say where we'll end up at the end of the financial year but we are required to review our service guidelines because we are experiencing an unprecedented demand without an increase in government funding," he said.

Mr Warner said the increased demand on its services was being driven by "the success of various federal and state government commitments".

In particular, he said an increase in child protection workers and police officers, as well as "the positive policing of family violence" meant its services were being increasingly stretched.

Mr Warner would not provide details on which services would be reduced as part of the review but said more details would be released in December.

However, Law institute of Victoria president Michael Holcroft said the institute had been informed of some of the proposed changes and held "serious concerns" about the impact those changes would have on the community.

In a letter to its members, the LIV said the changes could include:

*That the eligibility threshold for summary crime be raised so that only those cases which carry an immediate term of imprisonment as the likely outcome will be aided;

*That the fees payable to instructing solicitors could be limited to two (or two and a half) days per trial;

*That grants of aid payable in youth crime matters could be cut.

"We believe this will lead to more people falling through the cracks... I think there will be less opportunities for rehabilitation and that more young people will end up in the adult criminal system and they are very hard to recover from there."

He called for an urgent boost in funding from state and federal governments.

"The major issue is that the government has put all these steps in place to boost the law and order platform with more police offers and DHS employees. That has resulted in more initiations coming through the courts... but they've done nothing to fund the other side of the equation."

Mr Warner also called on the state and commonwealth for extra funding

and admitted the latest review could mean that more people miss out on the legal assistance they need.

"Undoubtedly, there will be people who fall through the gaps because we can't continue to offer the same mix of services, or some services that will continue to be offered will be reduced in intensity so people will have a lesser or more limited service."

A spokesman for Attorney-General Robert Clark said the state government was providing record levels of funding to Victoria Legal Aid.

He said over the next four years, Victoria would provide more than $400 million of funding for legal assistance, compared to $236 million from the Commonwealth.

"Rather than complaining about the state government's contribution the LIV should be joining with the state government to call on the Commonwealth to provide its fair share of legal aid funding for Victoria."

Since 1997, the Commonwealth's share of legal aid funding had dropped from 50 per cent to one third, he said.

"The LIV leadership needs to be honest and open in its approach to legal aid funding, instead of making excuses for the Commonwealth's failures."

This story Funding crisis hits legal aid first appeared on The Age.