Victoria Legal Aid

 

Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) is a government-funded agency set up to ensure that people who cannot afford to pay for a private lawyer can get help with their legal problems. VLA provides free information for all Victorians, family dispute resolution for disadvantaged families, provides lawyers on duty in most courts and tribunals in Victoria, and funds legal representation for people who meet our eligibility criteria. VLA can help people with a range of legal problems including criminal matters, family separation, family violence, mental health and discrimination.

Victoria Legal Aid

350 Queen Street, Melbourne Vic 3000

Tel: 1300 792 387

Web: www.legalaid.vic.gov.au

Who is eligible for help from Victoria Legal Aid?

Some of VLA’s services are available to everyone, while other, more intensive services are offered to eligible people. Phone VLA to find out if you are eligible for legal aid services.

Free legal information

Anyone can get free information by:

going to the “Find legal answers” section on VLA’s website. Each topic has information about the law and who you can contact for more help;

phoning VLA on 1300 792 387;

ordering VLA’s free publications and resources;

visiting VLA’s public law library to access legislation, case law and other legal materials.

Legal services for eligible people

VLA may be able to:

give you free legal advice – in person, by video conference or over the phone;

help you if you are at court without a lawyer.

To get a lawyer to run your case you must be eligible for a grant of legal assistance. To decide whether you are eligible, VLA look at:

what your case is about;

the likely benefit to you;

if helping you can benefit the public;

your financial situation.

If you are going through a separation or divorce that involves family dispute, you may be able to use the family dispute resolution service instead of going to court. You will only be able to take part if you or the other person in the dispute is eligible to get a lawyer to run your case.

More information about VLA’s services is available at www.legalaid.vic.gov.au.

Legal problems that VLA doesn’t give advice about

There are some things VLA doesn’t give legal advice about. They include:

business or commercial matters – see Business Victoria or the Victorian Small Business Commissioner;

buying property, building contracts and disputes – see Consumer Affairs Victoria and Building or renovating a house;

defamation – see Defamation and your rights;

intellectual property law – see Intellectual Property Australia and Copyright;

pay disputes – see Fair Work Ombudsman;

work injuries – see WorkSafe;

wills and deceased estates – see Wills, Estates and Funerals.

Legal help phone line

For free information about the law and how VLA can help you, phone VLA’s legal help line on 1300 792 387. The phone line is open Monday to Friday, 8.45 am to 5.15 pm.

Help is available in different languages

If you don’t speak or understand English well, you can call VLA on 1300 792 387 to speak to someone in your own language about the law and VLA’s services. VLA has staff who speak Arabic, Bosnian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Croatian, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Persian/Dari, Polish, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish, Moba/Ukrainian and Vietnamese.

If your language isn’t listed above, call the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) on 131 450 and ask to be put through to Victoria Legal Aid’s legal help line on 1300 792 387.

Help for people who are deaf or have a hearing or speech impairment

If you are deaf or have a hearing or speech impairment you can use the national relay service to call VLA over the internet on 1300 792 387. This is a free service. For more information visit www.relayservice.gov.au.

TTY users can call 133 677 and then ask for 1300 792 387.

Speak and listen users can call 1300 555 727 and then ask for 1300 792 387.

Free legal advice

VLA’s lawyers give free legal advice on a range of matters to people who need it most.

Who can see a lawyer?

VLA lawyers help people who need it most. Their main focus is on people who:

can’t afford a private lawyer;

have an intellectual disability, an acquired brain injury or mental illness;

are in a psychiatric in-patient unit;

are experiencing or at risk of homelessness;

are a child or young person going to the Children’s Court;

can’t speak, read or write well in English;

are Indigenous Australians;

are at court for a family violence matter or are at risk of family violence;

are in custody or facing a serious penalty.

A serious penalty is where there is a real risk that a person will:

go to jail;

be put on a community corrections order;

get a substantial fine.

The penalty can depend on your prior criminal record.

Legal problems VLA can help you with

VLA gives free legal advice on a range of matters, including:

criminal matters, including some serious traffic offences;

family separation matters;

child protection;

child support;

family violence;

discrimination and sexual harassment;

Centrelink and social security law;

debt recovery for people with debt;

guardianship and administration matters at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal;

infringement fines – if you have special circumstances that have contributed to you getting infringement notices;

matters before the Mental Health Review Board;

refugee and immigration matters;

some tenancy matters for tenants only;

Veterans’ Affairs matters;

compensation claims for victims of crime.

Call VLA’s legal help line on 1300 792 387 to find out if they can help you.

How VLA can help

Depending on your circumstances, VLA lawyers may be able to:

give you free legal advice – in person, by video conference or over the phone;

help you if you are at court without a lawyer;

run your case, which may include representing you in court.

They can also refer you to other services for help.

Where you can get free legal advice

Go to VLA’s website www.legalaid.vic.gov.au to find out where else you can get free legal advice.

VLA’s duty lawyer service

What is a duty lawyer?

VLA has lawyers on duty at many courts and tribunals across Victoria. These duty lawyers help people who are at court for a hearing, but who do not have their own lawyer.

The duty lawyer service is free. However, duty lawyers do not represent everyone. Therefore, it is always best to speak to VLA before going to court.

Contact VLA’s legal help line on 1300 792 387 to find out if you can see a duty lawyer or how they can help you with your legal problem.

Who can see a duty lawyer at court?

Duty lawyers help people who need it most. VLA focuses on helping people who:

can’t afford a private lawyer;

have an intellectual disability, an acquired brain injury or mental illness;

are experiencing or at risk of homelessness;

are in a psychiatric in-patient unit with a Mental Health Review Board hearing;

is a child or young person going to the Children’s Court;

can’t speak, read or write well in English;

are Indigenous Australians;

are at court for a family violence matter or are at risk of family violence;

are in custody or facing a serious penalty.

A serious penalty is where there is a real risk that a person will:

go to jail;

be put on a community corrections order;

get a substantial fine.

The penalty can depend on your prior criminal record.

How the duty lawyer service can help

Depending on your circumstances, VLA can:

give you information – for some matters VLA can provide printed information about specific offences and what happens in court;

give you legal advice – about the law and what happens in court; this may include negotiations with the prosecution;

represent you in court that day;

arrange for a legal aid lawyer to run your case.

If you are an adult at the Magistrates’ Court for a criminal matter, getting advice or representation will depend on your income.

What can duty lawyers help you with?

Duty lawyers can help with the matters listed below. However, call VLA’s legal help line on 1300 792 387 to find out if VLA can help you with your legal problem.

Children’s Court

At the Children’s Court, VLA can help you with:

criminal law matters;

child protection applications;

family violence and personal safety intervention orders.

Magistrates’ Court

At the Magistrates’ Court, VLA can help you with:

adult criminal law matters;

serious traffic matters;

family violence matters and intervention orders;

some infringement matters (if you have special circumstances).

Mental Health Tribunal

VLA can represent you at the Mental Health Tribunal. VLA visits all hospitals and some community mental health clinics.

Family Court

At the Family Court, VLA can help you with family law matters.

Federal Circuit Court

At the Federal Circuit Court, VLA can help you with:

family law matters;

child support;

some immigration matters.

Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT)

At the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, VLA can help you with:

residential tenancy matters (tenants only);

anti-discrimination matters;

some civil claims matters.

Administrative Appeals Tribunal

At the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, VLA can help you with:

Veterans’ Affairs matters;

social security matters;

some immigration matters.

Where you can find the duty lawyer

The duty lawyer service is not available at all courts and tribunals. Go to VLA’s website www.legalaid.vic.gov.au to find a duty lawyer service.

How to see a duty lawyer

Before going to court, contact VLA’s legal help line on 1300 792 387 to find out if you can see a duty lawyer.

If a duty lawyer can see you, it is best to arrive at the court or tribunal when it opens, as the duty lawyer may have many people to see and you may have to wait.

When you get to court, ask the court staff if there is a lawyer on duty. If there is, the court staff should be able to tell you what you need to do to see the lawyer.

If you need an interpreter, the court will organise this for you. It is best to let the court know before the day of your hearing. If you haven’t done this, tell the court staff as soon as you get to court.

VLA’s Family Dispute Resolution Service

Victoria Legal Aid Family Dispute Resolution Service (FDRS) helps people resolve their family law disputes.

FDRS can organise a dispute resolution conference to help with the following disputes:

developing a parenting plan that sets out arrangements for the care of children;

sorting out financial issues, such as the division of property, spousal maintenance, and maintenance for children over 18 years old.

Family dispute resolution conferences are run by experienced, trained, family dispute resolution practitioners (“chairpersons”) who are registered with the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department.

Chairpersons help the people involved in a family law dispute to:

identify and consider their options;

work towards reaching an agreement.

Chairpersons do not give legal advice.

Family dispute resolution conferences can happen in different ways to help individuals feel comfortable and safe. These are the different types:

“Joint” conference: You and your lawyer can speak with each other and the other parties around a table or over the telephone. You can also speak privately with your lawyer and the chairperson.

“Shuttle” conference: You do not have to see or speak to the other person. The chairperson speaks to each party (and their lawyer) separately. Shuttle conferences can take place in the same building where you each have a safe room in a separate area, or they can take place over the telephone.

Flexible approaches: Sometimes conferences move from a joint format to a shuttle format if it makes the parties more comfortable. Conferences can also start in shuttle format and move to joint. However, you should never feel pressured to meet with the other party if you are afraid.

At the end of the conference the chairperson gives you a certificate to say:

all the parties attended and made a genuine effort to resolve the dispute; or

all the parties attended, but one or both of the parties did not make a genuine effort to resolve the dispute; or

family dispute resolution started, but part way through the chairperson decided it was not appropriate to continue; or

one party did not attend; or

the case was not appropriate for family dispute resolution.

If you apply to a court for a parenting order, the judge may take the FDRS certificate into account when making decisions about your case (including whether one of you should pay the other’s legal costs). However, in most cases, you can only apply for a parenting order if you have a certificate from a family dispute resolution practitioner.

Getting started

To use FDRS, at least one person must have a lawyer and a grant of legal assistance from VLA. The other party can use the service without a lawyer, but VLA strongly encourages everyone to get legal advice.

A case manager will work out if FDRS is suitable for the people in dispute, by speaking to each person privately and separately before having a conference. The case manager will select the most appropriate format and venue for the conference.

FDRS locations

Conferences can be held at many locations in metropolitan and rural Victoria, including at many of VLA’s offices (for office locations, seeVictoria Legal Aid” in Legal services that can help). If there isn’t a FDRS location near you, conferences can be held via telephone from anywhere in Australia.

Attending FDRS

Everyone who is invited to participate in FDRS receives a brochure about FDRS, fact sheets for separating families and other information published by the Australian Government on family dispute resolution and parenting plans.

FDRS is not like going to court, but VLA recommends getting legal advice. People who cannot afford to pay a lawyer can apply for a grant of legal assistance that will cover a lawyer’s fees.

Cost

FDRS is free. However, you may have to pay your lawyer’s fees if they do not have a grant of legal assistance. People can use FDRS without a lawyer, but VLA recommends getting legal advice. VLA can provide assistance in finding a lawyer.

How children are involved

All conferences are focused on the best interests of the child or children involved.

Where the case manager decides it is appropriate, and all parties agree, FDRS can arrange for children to speak to a qualified child consultant before a conference takes place.

Children do not attend conferences. FDRS does not provide childcare.

Confidentiality

All discussions that take place with the case manager or during the conference are confidential and cannot be used as evidence in court.

It is a serious offence to disclose any confidential information from the family dispute resolution process to any other person or body, including a court, and penalties apply.

This rule does not apply where FDRS:

are concerned a child has been abused or is at risk of harm;

believe that there is a risk of harm to a person or to their property;

become aware of a fraud or criminal act.

Safety

Tell FDRS staff if you are worried about your emotional or physical safety.

You will not be forced to be in the same room as the other party. You could be in a different room or be on the telephone.

FDRS can also arrange for you and the other person to arrive and leave the conference at different times so you do not see each other.

FDRS will only book a conference if they consider it safe to do so. Your case manager will:

help you to develop a safety plan for the conference, so that you feel safe and protected;

give you information and resources to help you make decisions about your physical and emotional safety.

Legal assistance grants

What is a legal assistance grant?

If you are unable to resolve your legal problem on your own and cannot afford a lawyer, VLA may be able to pay for a lawyer to help you. This is called a “grant of legal assistance”.

Grants of legal assistance are usually for criminal or family matters, but they can also be given in some other matters, such as guardianship, infringements, immigration, social security, mental health and discrimination cases.

A grant may pay for some or all of the following types of work:

legal advice;

helping to resolve the matters in dispute;

preparing legal documents;

representing you in court.

Who can get a grant?

VLA’s funds are limited and demand for legal services is high. To ensure the money goes to those who need it the most, there are clear rules about who can get a grant of legal assistance.

When considering if you are eligible for a grant, VLA looks at:

what your case is about;

the likely benefit to you;

if helping you can benefit the public;

your financial situation using a means test.

Means test

The means test applies to most adults and takes into account:

money received from work, welfare benefits or other sources;

major assets, like a house or car;

weekly living expenses.

The means test also looks at whether you support anyone else, or if they support you. These people are called “financially associated persons” and their income and assets are included when VLA works out if you are eligible for a grant.

Applying for a grant

To apply for a grant of legal assistance, you need to fill out an application form. The form has questions about your legal problem and your financial situation to help VLA establish if you’re eligible for a grant of legal assistance.

You also need to give VLA documents to support your application, including:

proof of your income, such as a recent payslip or Centrelink benefit statement;

bank or credit union account statements for the last three months.

If you financially support anyone else, you also need to give VLA proof of income and bank statements relating to these “financially associated persons”.

VLA can usually process most applications within five working days.

Help with your application

VLA lawyers, and private lawyers who do legal aid work, can help you fill out and submit an application form for free. They can also help you get information that supports your application. Call VLA’s legal help line on 1300 792 387.

If you get a grant

If you are eligible for a grant of legal assistance, VLA will send a letter to you and the lawyer running your case. The letter tells you:

what assistance has been granted;

any special conditions;

your lawyer’s name and contact details;

the date your assistance begins;

information about what you can do if you disagree with the terms of the grant.

Cost ceilings

There are usually some limits to how much money is available for your case – this is called a “cost ceiling”.

It is important that you and your lawyer understand these limits. If the cost ceiling is reached before your case is over, you may have to:

finish the case without VLA’s help;

apply for further assistance.

You can ask VLA how much money is left at any stage.

General terms of a grant

By accepting the offer of a grant of legal assistance, you also agree to the general terms and conditions of the grant, and any special conditions that are explained in the letter you get from VLA.

These terms include:

you must tell VLA immediately if any of your circumstances change while you are getting legal assistance;

you allow your lawyer to give VLA any information they need to carry out their functions under the Legal Aid Act 1978 (Vic);

your lawyer must tell VLA if they receive any money on your behalf;

any costs you receive must be paid to VLA (however, this does not apply to damages).

VLA may stop or change your legal assistance if you do not follow the:

terms and conditions of your grant;

advice of your lawyer.

You may have to pay some or all of the costs of your case up to that point.

Contributions and charges

Legal assistance is not always free. You may be asked to:

pay some money towards the cost of running your case – this is called a “contribution”;

agree to a charge over any house or land you own or are buying.

This will be explained in the letter. The amount you might have to pay depends on your financial situation.

What is a contribution?

A contribution is when you have to pay all or part of your grant back to VLA. They work this out by looking at your financial situation to see how much you can afford to pay.

Making payments

You can pay your contribution by direct debit, cheque, money order or at any VLA office. You will be asked to pay monthly instalments or a lump sum upfront depending on your financial situation. You will get back anything you have overpaid at the end of your case.

Tell VLA if your financial situation changes

You must tell VLA if there are any changes to your financial situation. If your situation improves, (e.g. you get a job) your monthly instalment may increase. If your situation gets worse (e.g. your car may need major work) VLA can discuss reducing your monthly instalment for a few months.

VLA may review your situation

VLA can also review your financial situation. If it has improved, they may ask you to pay back all of your contribution immediately.

Get independent legal advice to help you decide whether you agree to the conditions of your grant.

What is a charge?

A charge is a legal document that VLA asks you to sign so that they are paid back the grant money if you sell, transfer, refinance or borrow on your house or property. You can sign a charge even if you have a mortgage. VLA can also ask you to sign a charge if you obtain property while you are getting legal assistance or at the end of your case.

You still own your property. VLA will not force you to sell, refinance or move out of your home.

If you agree to sign a charge, VLA will register a legal notice on your property at the Land Titles Office. This notice is called a caveat.

If you do not agree to sign a charge, VLA may stop your grant of assistance.

Get independent legal advice to help you decide whether you agree to the conditions of your grant.

Cost of a caveat

Registering a caveat usually costs less than $100. This cost is added to the amount of the charge.

If you sell, transfer or borrow against your house

If you plan to sell, transfer or borrow against your house you must tell VLA immediately. You have to pay the amount you owe them. Even if you buy another house, you will still have to pay VLA, so it is best to contact them first to find out how much money you owe.

The Land Titles Office will tell VLA if you sell, transfer or borrow against your property.

How to remove the caveat

When you pay the money you owe VLA will give you the forms you need to remove the caveat. You can choose to pay VLA back at any stage, not just when you sell the house.

Each year VLA will review your financial situation

Each year you will be asked to fill in a financial statement. If your financial situation changes and VLA thinks you can afford it, they may ask you to make payments in the same way as a contribution.

Selecting your lawyer

If you don’t have a lawyer, VLA will allocate one according to who they think can help you best.

If you would like a particular lawyer to act for you, you can let VLA know on your application form. Your lawyer must be on one of our practitioner panels. There is a limited exception for some family law matters.

Paying your lawyer

Your lawyer is paid directly by VLA. Your lawyer is not allowed to ask you to pay any costs for services performed under your grant of legal assistance. If you do get a bill from your lawyer let VLA know immediately.

Disagree with a grants decision

If you disagree with VLA’s decision about your application for a grant of legal assistance you can ask them to reconsider that decision.

Things you can ask them to reconsider include:

the rejection of your application;

the conditions of your grant;

the amount or method of paying a contribution;

if VLA decides to stop or change the grant of legal assistance.

Requesting a reconsideration

You or your lawyer must request reconsideration within 14 days from the date of the letter informing you of the decision. Your letter must include the reasons why you think VLA should change their decision.

VLA will then send you a letter to let you know if they are changing their decision or if it remains the same. If VLA does not change the decision, the letter will include information about your review rights.

Independent review

If you are still unhappy with VLA’s decision, you have the right to have the decision reviewed by an independent reviewer. This is a person appointed by the Victorian Attorney-General and is not an employee of VLA.

You must write to VLA to ask for an independent review within 21 days from the date of the letter informing you of the reconsidered decision.

The reviewer will look at your application, your letter, other information in your file and VLA’s policies and guidelines. The independent reviewer’s decision is the final decision within VLA.

Going to court

You may have the right to go to court to request a further review. You should get independent legal advice as this will only be granted within strict time-lines and under limited circumstances.

More information

For more detailed information about grants of legal assistance see the VLA Handbook for Lawyers. The book sets out how apply for a grant of legal assistance and the guidelines and conditions of receiving a grant. It also explains the payment structure for private lawyers who perform legal aid work.