Victoria Legal Aid says it will review cuts to its family services – which the Family Court’s Chief Justice has criticised as compromising children’s best interests – later this year.

Legal Aid made unprecedented cuts to its services last year to save money in the midst of growing demand and million-dollar losses. It announced last January that it would no longer fund parties in the Family Court if they were facing someone who was also unrepresented in court.

Nicole Rich, director of Victoria Legal Aid’s Family, Youth and Children’s Law division, told Fairfax Media that the current guidelines were not ‘‘ideal’’.

She said that the organisation was planning to review all of its family legal aid services at the start of the new financial year in July at the earliest, and would consult with the public and key stakeholders.

‘‘We’re going to be reviewing all of our family legal aid services this year and we are keen to...potentially make changes,’’ she said.

‘‘We do want to increase the accessibility to legal aid services but we also want to make sure that that’s done in a way that’s sustainable longer term, that we can fund it.’’

Ms Rich said there was great uncertainty for future funding of family legal services ahead of the May Budget and the National Partnership Agreement ending on 30 June.

A key criticism of the legal aid crisis has been the federal government's decreasing contribution to state legal aid commissions since 1997.

It has since fallen from half of what the states chip in, to about a third. Victoria receives the smallest share of federal funding in the country per head.

‘‘We’re not in a position to make any further decisions at this point in time,’’ Ms Rich said.

Chief Justice Diana Bryant criticised Legal Aid’s cuts to its family law services on Monday, saying that they had led to more parents representing themselves in court.

Chief Justice Bryant said that the cuts had exacerbated long-held concerns in the Family Court about parents being able to be cross-examined directly by their former partners, even in cases where they are alleged perpetrators of family violence.

"The problem that really arises is you have a party who is not only going to be cross-examined by their former partner about violence of which they are a victim. But they [also] have to run their case and they have to cross-examine their partner and for many people that's impossible," she told ABC Radio.

She said that in the Family Court the best interests of the child are "paramount": "So the judge is searching for the best interest answer and that's greatly assisted by having an independent children's lawyer, but...the system is compromised unquestionably."

The Chief Justice said that in some cases, parents settled privately to avoid going through the process unrepresented.

Ms Rich agreed that Legal Aid’s changes to its trial guidelines had meant more people went unrepresented. But she said that the issue of self-represented litigants had been a ‘‘long-standing issue’’ since the Family Court was formed.

‘‘Even if we reverse the change from last January tomorrow, it wouldn’t fix the problem because there are still plenty of people who are not eligible for Legal Aid in the first place,’’ she said.

She said Legal Aid’s decision to return to funding people in the Family Court who received state services for a diagnosed mental illness or disability ‘‘(recognised) that those clients were particularly vulnerable. We recognise that they’re not going to be capable of standing up in court and representing themselves.’’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chief Justice of the Family Court says more parents are appearing for themselves in court because they are no longer eligible for legal aid, which is compromising children's best interests.

Victoria Legal Aid made unprecedented cuts to its services last year to save money in the midst of growing demand and million-dollar losses. It announced last January that it would no longer fund parties in the Family Court if they were facing someone who was also unrepresented.

Chief Justice Diana Bryant told ABC Radio on Monday that as a result of this and other changes to legal aid's eligibility guidelines: "We're seeing an increasing number of unrepresented litigants appearing for themselves on both sides."

Chief Justice Bryant said that legal aid cuts exacerbated long-standing concerns in the Family Court about parents being able to be cross-examined directly by their former partners, even in cases where they are alleged perpetrators of family violence.

"The problem that really arises is that you have a party who is not only going to be cross-examined by their former partner about violence of which they are a victim. But they [also] have to run their case and they have to cross-examine their partner and for many people that's impossible," she said.

The Chief Justice said that in some cases, parents settle privately to avoid going through the process unrepresented: "It leads to settlements which are perhaps not as desirable."

She said that in the Family Court the best interests of the child are "paramount": "So the judge is searching for the best interest answer and that's greatly assisted by having an independent children's lawyer, but we would have to say the system is compromised unquestionably."

A Family Court spokesman confirmed that two partners had represented themselves in a matter involving allegations of rape. In the same week, he said a family violence victim lost her legal aid grant because her ex-partner did not appear in court on the day of the hearing. Her legal aid barrister then appeared pro bono on her behalf.

The Chief Justice said that Victoria Legal Aid had ensured independent children's lawyers were available, which were essential particularly in cases where they were the only lawyers available.

"But they have a limited role, they can't take instructions from the parties [parents], they can't cross-examine about facts which will be in the unique knowledge of the parents. So although they're crucial, their role is inevitably limited," she said.

A key criticism of the legal aid crisis has been the federal government's decreasing contribution to state legal aid commissions since 1997. It has since fallen from half of what the states chip in, to about a third. Victoria receives the smallest share of federal funding in the country per head.

Chief Justice Bryant said that the federal and state governments were aware of the courts' concerns but "money is a scarce commodity for everyone".

"There's quite a lot of money being spent on other areas of justice at the moment. We see more people going to prison because prison sentences are harsher, more money being spent on prisons, I think there's a discussion to be had in the community about how important family law is as well," she said.

Victoria Legal Aid has been contacted for comment.

More to come