Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (17:09:31) — I rise to speak to the Justice Legislation Amendment (Access to Justice) Bill 2018. I am not going to go through the entire bill, but there are just a couple of areas that I would like to touch on, in particular the changes to the Legal Aid Act 1978.
I would just like to mention that I met with Michelle Quigley, the new president of VCAT, last week. She is quite a formidable person, and I am looking forward to seeing VCAT under her stewardship and guidance. However, while we may be looking at ways for VCAT to be more streamlined, VCAT is bulging at the seams. It needs more funding, and while a lot of these changes will make it an easier experience for people accessing VCAT, they will bring more people to VCAT, so I am very conscious that it will need to be supported through these changes.
I would also just like to mention how happy I am to see the removal of barriers for married people seeking to alter the record of their sex. This will be very welcome amongst many in the LGBTI community in Victoria. It is something that has caused great pain to a number of my constituents and a number of people in our community, and I think this will end some really painful decisions that people were having to make and enable people to live their lives with the people that they love in the way that they wish.
Moving to Victoria Legal Aid (VLA), this bill really gives effect to 16 of the 60 recommendations in the government’s Access to Justice Review, principally by strengthening Victoria Legal Aid’s role as a coordinator in the system of accessing justice. It increases VLA’s transparency and accountability, which previous reports have shown is absolutely necessary; introduces new planning and reporting requirements, including a long‑term strategic plan, an annual corporate plan and quarterly performance reporting; strengthens the skills base of the VLA board by requiring at least one director to have experience in public management and two directors to have experience in areas of VLA’s practice; and strengthens the general governance structures by removing the managing director position and introducing a CEO. I think all of these go to the intent of the bill, which is greater access to justice.
We know that a fairer and more equitable legal system is really important and is particularly important to our most disadvantaged people. We know that the people in our most disadvantaged postcodes are well and truly overrepresented in our court system and in our justice system. It is important because it is those same people who continue to fall through the gaps.
In thinking about this and in looking through this bill, I spoke to a person who is a criminal lawyer. For the sake of my contribution I would like to call her Emily. Emily had a client called Zac, who was a 19‑year‑old Indigenous young man from a country town in regional Victoria. He was remanded at Port Phillip Prison on a charge of breach of an intervention order. The magistrate in Zac’s case deferred the final sentencing decision, granting bail so that he could attend the Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place (WN). This was a very fine decision and a very considered decision of the magistrate to give this young man a chance to revisit his culture and to connect within this residential service for Koori men. Principally they are on community correction orders, but for Zac this was going to give him an opportunity to learn skills and reconnect with his culture and participate in programs to address his offending behaviour. This, I think, was a very good and a very wise decision.
On the day of the court hearing, Zac’s matter was finalised at about 3 o’clock. He appeared via video link from the Port Philip Prison, and then he was to be released from there. Corrections had bought him a train ticket so he could get on the 5.30 train from Spencer Street to Traralgon, meaning that Zac had to get himself from Port Phillip Prison to the city by bus in order to catch the train. Emily called the prison, asking that they release Zac as soon as they could so that he could get that bus to get that train to get to Traralgon. But the prison refused to give Emily any information. Zac was held and, not surprisingly, he missed the 5.30 train. He did not have a mobile so he could not call anyone; he had no way of telling anyone where he was.
That night the people from Wulgunggo Ngalu drove from Yarram to the train station in Traralgon in the hope that Zac would be on one of the following trains. This was a 134‑kilometre round trip. The next morning they phoned Emily to say that he had not arrived. The magistrate had made the order 18 hours before, at 9 o’clock in the morning. Emily got a call from Zac saying that he was at Spencer Street station. The prison had released him at 7.30 that night despite the magistrate making the order at 3.00 p.m. Of course all bus services had stopped. Zac had no money and no phone. When he asked to go back into prison they would not let him back in because he had been released. He slept outside the prison and then made his way down to Spencer Street.
This ultimately had a happy ending, but Emily had to meet him at Spencer Street station, buy him another ticket and make sure he got on the train to get to Traralgon to go out to Yarram, and he did make it and he is doing well. But Emily should not have had to do that job. This is some of the work that we should be doing. This type of access is not something that we should be relying on criminal lawyers to do because they cannot always do it. Emily is probably rare. Not all criminal lawyers would be checking on someone like Zac to ensure that he made it safely — going down to the station and buying him a ticket, doing the sorts of things that enabled Zac to make it.
Ben, who is also Indigenous, received a 12‑month term of imprisonment with eligibility for parole after six months. Unfortunately he could not get parole because he did not have any family in Victoria and he did not have a Victorian address to be released to. His circumstances, like Zac’s, were pretty sad. He was a young man who had grown up in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. As I said, he had no family in Victoria. This meant that he served the full 12 months of the sentence. There was no supervision on his release — no assistance to reintegrate into the community and no‑one coordinating mental health or drug and alcohol treatment, which is the value of parole, as we have spoken about in this place before. Instead he was released straight into the community with nothing — no home, no money, no Centrelink in place, no family. Emily told us she thinks he was given three days in a motel, funded by one of the social services, but that was about it. To nobody’s surprise, Ben was back in custody three weeks later. The system is essentially set up to fail people like Ben, and I think these examples highlight that we need to do better. Enhancing access to justice is an important step, but it is just a step.
I spoke about this earlier today on a different matter, but if we can support people like Ben and Zac so that they do not reoffend, then that obviously is a far better outcome than continually jailing them in this never‑ending cycle that these men get into. Ben needed help to become a functional member of society so that he was not placed in a desperate situation where he really did not have many other options.
As I said during the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearings last week, we need to look at the recent successes in places like the Netherlands, where they have reduced their recidivism rates to the extent that they are closing their prisons down. They are even accepting prisoners from other countries simply because they now have so many prison beds available. In the Netherlands they incarcerate 69 per 100 000 people, compared to 138 per 100 000, and growing, in Victoria. The Netherlands has exactly half the rate of incarceration as Victoria, and that is because they are not jailing violent offenders. It is because they have managed to set up a system that reduces recidivism and reduces reoffending, which really should be the main objective of our justice system. Punishment is one element of our justice system, but reducing recidivism should be our main goal.
Moving on, as important as enhancing access to justice is, it is important we choose the correct vehicle. Victoria Legal Aid has a huge number of incredibly passionate and hardworking staff, and they do a tough job. As I said when I was speaking about Emily, they quite often put the wellbeing of their clients ahead of their own. They work very long hours and they are tireless in their representation of their clients, who very often have been ignored or disposed of by society. The staff are not only providing legal services; they have to recognise mental health issues and understand drug issues as well as homelessness, trauma and different cultures. The staff cop abuse and they manage incredibly hefty caseloads.
I would like to make some comments about the management of the organisation. Victoria Legal Aid’s financial difficulties were well publicised a few years ago — a $3 million deficit followed by a $9 million deficit that the organisation addressed by slashing the eligibility for legal aid funding, and therein limiting access to justice for very many Victorians.
In the Auditor‑General’s 2014 report titled Access to Legal Aid he noted limitations with legal aid’s performance framework, meaning it was not possible to determine how effectively, efficiently and economically it was providing these services. So they just could not see how well they were doing. The extent to which VLA is providing services effectively, efficiently and economically is constrained by the very fact that its performance monitoring framework does not clearly inform the board or the public about how well it is achieving its objectives. I am hoping these issues have been dealt with since 2014.
I am also somewhat concerned that legal aid may still be too top‑heavy and may have proportionately less frontline staff than equivalent legal aid commissions in other jurisdictions. There is some criticism that has been brought to my attention that legal aid is too bureaucratic, it has too many departments and there is just too much red tape within legal aid. In Victoria Legal Aid’s 2016 staff satisfaction survey there was not much satisfaction. In fact the results were fairly woeful, and they highlighted some really significant cultural issues within the organisation. I understand that Victoria Legal Aid has taken significant steps to improve this, and I think we in this place could certainly benefit from some reassurance in this regard.
Personally I would like to see the Victorian Auditor‑General’s Office undertake a follow‑up audit to check whether the recommendations made in 2014 have actually been implemented. However, I am reassured, and I think the changes that this bill makes will increase the transparency and accountability of Victoria Legal Aid, as I have mentioned before, by introducing new planning and reporting requirements, by having long‑term strategic plans, by having corporate plans, by having quarterly performance reporting, by improving the skills base of the VLA board and by strengthening those governance structures.
I note that Mr John O’Donoghue is the newly appointed board director, and I do wish him well. I presume he is probably listening to this debate today. I am certain he will get VLA functioning as a model employer and, importantly, as an efficient and less bureaucratic organisation with a renewed focus on frontline services delivery, and I think this bill will assist him greatly in taking VLA to achieving those goals. I have not yet met Mr O’Donoghue, but given his CV, his skill set and his experience at places like PricewaterhouseCoopers I think he has got the right skills to achieve the more streamlined nature that we need for our legal aid services here.
So with those points I do not mean to be terribly critical of legal aid. I think they do remarkable work, and a criminal lawyer — someone like Emily, who is funded through legal aid — is a great example of the services that legal aid employees themselves offer but also the services that Victoria Legal Aid fund and the lawyers that they fund to provide them. This legislation will deliver better justice outcomes and, I hope, a broader safety net to really help individuals out of that cycle of reoffending, and if we can continue to consider that it is stopping that cycle of reoffending that should be our goal in our justice system, then we will achieve a safer community. I commend the bill to the house.