Victoria Legal Aid

 

Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) is a government-funded agency set up to ensure that people who cannot afford to pay a private lawyer can get help with their legal problems. VLA provides:

free legal information for all Victorians;

free legal advice for people who meet the eligibility criteria;

duty lawyers in most courts and tribunals;

family dispute resolution for disadvantaged families;

legal assistance grants for people who meet the eligibility criteria.

VLA can help people with a range of legal problems including those relating to criminal matters, family separation, family violence, mental health and discrimination.

Victoria Legal Aid

350 Queen Street, Melbourne Vic 3000

Legal Help phone line: 1300 792 387

Web: www.legalaid.vic.gov.au

Free legal information

Anyone can get free information by:

going to the “Find legal answers” section on VLA’s website (www.legalaid.vic.gov.au) – each topic has information about the law and who you can contact for more help;

ordering VLA’s free publications and resources;

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

phoning the Legal Help phone line on 1300 792 387 (Monday to Friday, 8.45 am to 5.15 pm).

You can speak to someone in English or ask for an interpreter. You can access Legal Help in the following languages: Arabic – 9269 0127; Bosanski/Bosnian – 9269 0164; Mandarin – 9269 0212; Cantonese – 9269 0161; Hrvatski/ Croatian – 9269 0164; Dari – 9269 0534; Farsi (Persian) – 9269 0123; French – 9269 0541; Greek – 9269 0167; Hebrew – 9269 0542; Hindi – 9269 0487; Italiano/Italian – 9269 0202; Polski/Polish – 9269 0228; Russian – 9269 0315; Serbian – 9269 0332; Turkçe/Turkish – 9269 0386; Español/Spanish – 9269 0384; Thai – 9269 0123; Moba/Ukrainian – 9269 0390; Urdu – 9269 0389; and Vietnamese – 9269 0391. If you speak another language, call the Translating Interpreting Service (131 450) and ask to be put through to VLA’s Legal Help.

If you are deaf of have a speech impairment, you can use the National Relay Service (http://relayservice.gov.au) to phone VLA over the internet.

Free legal advice

Who can see a lawyer?

VLA lawyers help 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, or be put on a community corrections order, or get a substantial fine.

Phone VLA (tel: 1300 792 387) to find out if you are eligible for legal aid services.

Legal problems VLA can help you with

VLA gives free legal advice on a range of matters:

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 Tribunal;

refugee and immigration matters;

some tenancy matters for tenants only;

Veterans’ Affairs matters;

compensation claims for victims of crime.

Legal problems VLA can not help you with

There are some things VLA does not 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.

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.

Duty lawyers

What are duty lawyers?

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.

Note that 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.

Who can see a duty lawyer at court?

The duty lawyers prioritise 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 Tribunal hearing;

are going to the Children’s Court (i.e. people who are children or young people);

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, or be put on a community corrections order, or get a substantial fine.

How duty lawyers can help

Depending on your circumstances, duty lawyers can:

give you information – for some matters the duty lawyers 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 depends on your income.

What can duty lawyers help you with?

Children’s Court

At the Children’s Court, duty lawyers can help with:

criminal law matters;

child protection applications;

family violence and personal safety intervention orders.

Magistrates’ Court

At the Magistrates’ Court, duty lawyers can help with:

adult criminal law matters;

serious traffic matters;

family violence matters and intervention orders;

some infringement matters.

Mental Health Tribunal

Duty lawyers can represent you at the Mental Health Tribunal. Duty lawyers visit all hospitals and some community mental health clinics.

Family Court

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

Federal Circuit Court

At the Federal Circuit Court, duty lawyers can help you with:

family law matters;

child support;

some immigration matters.

Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT)

At VCAT, duty lawyers can help you with:

residential tenancy matters (tenants only);

anti-discrimination matters;

some civil claims matters.

Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT)

At the AAT, duty lawyers can help you with:

Veterans’ Affairs matters;

social security matters;

some immigration matters.

How to see a duty lawyer

Before going to court, contact VLA’s Legal Help phone line (tel: 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.

Family Dispute Resolution Service

What is FDRS?

VLA’s 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 and trained family dispute resolution practitioners (“chairpersons”) who are registered with the Commonwealth Attorney-General.

Chairpersons help the people involved in a family law dispute to identify and consider their options, and 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.

Who can use FDRS?

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. VLA can help to find a lawyer. People who cannot afford to pay a lawyer can apply for a grant of legal assistance that will cover a lawyer’s fees.

Getting started

A case manager works 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 selects the most appropriate format and venue for the conference.

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 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.

Cost

FDRS is free. However, you may have to pay your lawyer’s fees if you do not have a grant of legal assistance.

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:

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

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

becomes 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 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;

help to resolve the matters in dispute;

prepare legal documents;

represent you in court.

Who can get a grant?

As VLA’s funds are limited and demand for legal services is high, there are 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 (e.g. 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 (e.g. 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 need to give VLA proof of income and bank statements relating to these “financially associated persons”.

VLA can 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.

Cost ceilings

There is usually a limit 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 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 needed to carry out its 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, or the 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.

The amount you might have to pay depends on your financial situation. For more information about contributions and charges, visit www.vla.vic.gov.au (click on “Get legal services and advice”, then “Get a lawyer to run your case”. In the left-hand side menu, see “What is a contribution?” and “What is a charge?”).

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, let VLA know on your application form. Your lawyer must be on a VLA practitioner panel. 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 get a bill from your lawyer, let VLA know immediately.

If you 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.

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

However, 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 on legal assistance grants

For more detailed information about grants of legal assistance, see VLA’s Handbook for Lawyers (available at http://handbook.vla.vic.gov.au). This book sets out how to apply for grants of legal assistance and the guidelines and conditions attached to grants. It also explains the payment structure for private lawyers who perform legal aid work.