Govt Asked to Intervene in Legal Aid Funding Battle
19 February 2013 at 10:43 am
The Victorian Government will be asked to intervene in a funding stoush between Victorian Legal Aid and an independent community legal service, the Mental Health Legal Centre.
The Federation of Community Legal Centres had called for the immediate reversal of a decision by Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) to cut more than $300,000 in funding for the Mental Health Legal Centre (MHLC), which provides representation, advice and advocacy for people living with a mental illness in Victoria.
However, the Federation says VLA has refused to reverse the decision and it is now calling on the Victorian Government to intervene.
A letter is expected to be sent to the Victorian Attorney General Robert Clark and the Minister for Mental Health, Mary Wooldridge urging them to intervene.
“The defunding of this independent community legal centre dedicated to helping people living with a mental illness makes little sense given the growing need for advice and representation that will flow from the State Government’s mental health reform agenda,” the Federation’s Acting Executive Officer, Claudia Fatone, said.
“Despite a clearly increasing need for the assistance the MHLC has delivered since 1987, the savings from the cuts of approximately $360,000– should they proceed – will not be reinvested in an alternative independent community legal service; they will be redirected to Victoria Legal Aid itself,” Fatone said.
Two Supreme Court trials have been recently postponed due to legal aid funding issues in Victoria.
Victorian Legal Aid currently delivers representation for people placed on involuntary treatment orders at the Mental Health Review Board, with the MHLC representing people placed on community treatment orders.
“VLA has claimed it can deliver the services currently offered by the MHLC more efficiently, but there is considerable scope to challenge the claim that it can offer a service that enjoys the same level of trust from the community, the same level of participation in decisions by people living with a mental illness, let alone all the services the MHLC offers beyond representation at the Mental Health Review Board,” Fatone said.
“The MHLC has a proven track record of building a strong volunteer contribution and a substantial network of pro bono lawyers, who are trained by the MHLC in the particular skills needed to successfully represent people living with a mental illness.
“The defunding of the MHLC also places at risk the capacity of people to choose who represents them, and would severely limit choice for people seeking mental health legal services.
“We are further concerned that VLA may encounter conflicts that prevent it representing people on mental health matters where they also represent related parties on matters such as family law and child protection.”
The funding decision follows the MHLC’s completion of a period of statutory management late last year, with the appointment of a new Board on 27 November 2012, and the first meeting of that Board on 7 December. It is understood the VLA decision to defund the MHLC followed at its own Board meeting just days later.
The Federation says it understands that the defunding stems in part from past governance, administrative and financial concerns, but the decision is not in response to any notified breach by the MHLC of its current funding agreement, or concerns about current governance arrangements.
“More broadly, this decision undermines community legal centres, when national research commissioned last year shows that community legal centres offer a return of $18 for every dollar invested in the quality, free legal help they provide,” Fatone said.