Fair and equal justice Analysis

Fair and equal justice

Significant initiatives

  • Implementing the Legislated Spent Convictions Scheme
    $1.2m in 2020-21 ($5.3m/4 yrs) funding is provided to establish the Spent Convictions Scheme, which will be administered by Victoria Police and provide a framework for controlled disclosure of certain criminal records after periods without serious reoffending.
  • Legal assistance and critical early intervention support services
    $10.1m in 2020-21 ($31.1m/4 yrs) to maintain critical legal services and improve access to justice for Victorians who need support, through:
    • continuing grant payments to Community Legal Centres
    • expanding the Mabels family violence service
    • continuing the WEstjustice Mortgage Stress Service, which delivers a combination of legal, social, health and financial assistance to prevent the repossession of homes and reduce mortgage stress
    • supporting the Federation of Community Legal Centres
    • supporting the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s reference on stalking, harassment and similar conduct, and the use of Personal Safety Intervention Orders
    • continuing Victoria Legal Aid’s (VLA) Independent Advocacy and Support service
    • employing additional VLA lawyers and support staff to represent and assist parents and children in child protection legal proceedings
    • delivering the Coronial Council review into improving the experiences of bereaved families in the coronial process
    • providing specialist legal services to the LGBTIQ+ community
    • supplementing Victoria’s contribution to the Community Legal Assistance Service System, and
    • supporting the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and reducing its dispute resolution service backlog.
  • Embedded Youth Outreach Program
    $1.5m in 2020-21 ($6.3m/4 yrs) to continue the embedded Youth Outreach Program in the existing locations of Werribee and Dandenong, where police officers and youth workers are paired to provide assessment, initial support and referral for vulnerable young people and prevent possible future reoffending.
  • Preventing Aboriginal deaths in custody
    $10.9m in 2021-22 ($31.2/4 yrs) to reduce over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system and prevent Aboriginal deaths in custody, including after-hours family violence support, regional legal assistance, family violence and specialist family services, women’s and men’s diversion programs, and health, art and healing programs in prison.
  • Justice system response to family violence
    $5.4m in 2021-22 ($13.7/4 yrs) to further strengthen, integrate and embed the justice system’s response to family violence, through:
      • establishing legal services in The Orange Door network
      • continuing counselling and trauma programs to support women in prison
      • continuing family violence training and implementation of the Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management (MARAM) framework across the justice portfolio supported by specialist family violence practice leads embedded in Corrections Victoria and Youth Justice
      • building family violence capacity through dedicated research and evaluation functions, and
      • better identification of perpetrators and continuation of tailored intervention programs to support behaviour change and help break the cycle of family violence.
  • Specialist family violence integrated court response
    $10.1m in 2021-22 ($42.6m/4 yrs) to establish specialist family violence courts at remaining Magistrates Court headquarters, including improvements to ensure user safety and accessibility, continuing the remote hearing service and expanding the Court Mandated Counselling Order Program.
  • Disability Advice and Response Team for the Children’s Court
    $0.7m in 2020-21 ($3.9m/4 yrs) for a team to support young people with disability who have matters before the Children’s Court. This will lead to a clear pathway for young people to access disability support in a timely manner, helping to reduce the burden on the courts and reducing the time to hear a matter.
  • Increasing justice system capacity and service availability
    $17.7m in 2020-21 ($55.4m/4 yrs) to improve the justice system’s service availability and capacity to respond to the increasing volume of matters moving through the courts, and to reduce delays caused by the COVID-19 public health restrictions.
  • Online Magistrates Court and digital upgrades to VCAT
    $7.8m in 2021-22 ($30.7m/4 yrs) to expand the Online Magistrates Court program to hear more matters remotely, and $10.5m in 2021-22 ($27.8m/4 yrs) to upgrade digital services infrastructure, such as case management and process automation, in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
  • Responding to critical needs in the prison system
    $8.7m in 2020-21 ($41.5m/3 yrs) to address immediate needs in the prison system through continuation of Vocational Education and Training across the prison system and the ATLAS psycho-educational and wellbeing support for prisoners on remand, and extension of the Disability and Complex Needs Service program for women, being piloted at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.

Analysis

This Budget funds the long-awaited spent conviction scheme, the new health response to public drunkenness and a package of initiatives aimed to prevent Aboriginal deaths in custody.

This funding acknowledges that punitive responses to health and social issues are ineffective. The initiatives are examples of justice reinvestment approaches, which re-direct money that would normally be spent on policing and prisons towards local, community-based initiatives that prevent people from getting mixed up in the criminal justice system in the first place. Future budgets should take this further, by adopting a justice reinvestment framework, so that communities can tackle disadvantage and implement place-based initiatives that address the health, social and legal problems that drive people to offend.

Funding has been provided for community-based diversionary services for young people and to retain the Embedded Youth Outreach Program at the existing locations of Werribee and Dandenong. While these are welcome initiatives, future budgets should further prioritise initiatives that keep kids safely away from the justice system, and fund therapeutic responses to children engaging in offending behaviour.

While we welcome the range of interventions funded under the ‘Preventing Aboriginal deaths in custody’ package, this investment will not be enough to address Aboriginal over-representation in the justice system. In particular, Aboriginal community controlled legal assistance is critical to preventing Aboriginal people from becoming involved in the justice system, but funding in this Budget is not enough to meet demand.

We welcome funding for community legal centres to ensure that Victorians can access affordable and timely legal assistance. Demand for legal help with tenancy, employment, family violence, consumer, fines and financial issues has significantly increased since the pandemic. It is not yet clear where the funding will be directed.

This Budget also funds initiatives that integrate legal assistance with other health and social supports, including the Mortgage Stress program delivered by WEstjustice, the Mabels Family Violence program delivered by the Eastern Community Legal Centre, and the provision of legal services in the Orange Door Network.

The Victorian Government should consider how to scale existing models to meet demand in other locations or to respond to other issues and cohorts. New innovative and place-based integrated legal assistance programs should also be supported with new funding.

This Budget raises the price of traffic infringements and court-imposed fines, by increasing the penalty unit value by 10 per cent, following a freeze in 2020-21. Fine increases have a disproportionate impact on people on low or no incomes. A concession-based fine system and special circumstances test would be much fairer.

VCOSS welcomes funding to establish Specialist Family Violence Courts in all the remaining Magistrates Court headquarters, improvements to ensure that victim survivors of family violence can access courts safely, and a Disability Advice and Response Team for the Children’s Court. This funding enables courts to apply specialist responses to specific needs, and future budgets should continue to invest in such problem-solving approaches in different court jurisdictions to meet demand.   

The Magistrates Court and VCAT continue to face backlogs, with court users experiencing delays in having their matters heard. The switch to virtual and remote engagement with courts during the pandemic has helped some people resolve legal issues more quickly, improved accessibility for some people with disability, reduced transport barriers for rural Victorians and helped victims of crime who may find attending court traumatising. 

But many Victorians still live on the wrong side of the digital divide. Without personal internet access, participating in virtual court proceedings is very challenging. An over-reliance on technology could make it even harder for people to enforce their rights or resolve legal issues.

The priority for digitisation should be on safety and access, not just efficiency and reduced delays. The Government should monitor the impact of the system changes – such as digital service delivery – on different users to ensure that low-income and vulnerable Victorians are benefiting from system changes.

$41.5 million is provided over three years for programs that respond to the needs of people in the prison system, including Vocational Education and Training across the prison system, support for people on remand, and extension of the Disability and Complex Needs Service program for women that’s being piloted at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.

The housing assistance package includes funding to provide additional support for people leaving prison. VCOSS has long advocated for the establishment of a ‘no exits into homelessness’ policy. We were disappointed that, while the Final Report of the Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria recommended establishing such a policy to guide discharge planning and support from institutional settings, this recommendation was absent in the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

The Government will respond to the Final Report of the Homelessness Inquiry in September 2021, and we hope to see this recommendation adopted and funded in future budgets, so that wraparound supports can be provided to people leaving prison, to prevent homelessness and further criminalisation once people have served their sentence.