06th March 2024 12:32pm
Victorian Legislative Council, Melbourne

David ETTERSHANK (Western Metropolitan) (12:31): (450)

My question is to the Attorney-General, and it concerns unrepresented litigants. Victoria Legal Aid has identified an increasing number of self-represented litigants appearing at the Magistrates’ Court. These are typically people who cannot afford legal representation but do not qualify for legal aid – they are sometimes called the ‘missing middle’. Matters where an accused would likely self-represent include low-level drug offences, family violence matters and some bail applications.

A lack of legal representation can be disastrous for litigants who are unaware of the legal options available to them. For instance, someone charged with a low-level drug offence may not realise that diversion is available to them and instead plead guilty to the offence against their own best interests. It also prevents challenges for magistrates and courts, increasing the time taken to hear a matter and causing delays in proceedings.

So I ask: what is the government doing to extend the provision of legal representation and address this inequity in access?

Jaclyn SYMES (Northern Victoria – Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:32): 

I thank Mr Ettershank for his question and certainly identification of an issue that has existed for some time and remains a challenge for and a focus of the courts, legal bodies and indeed government. Unfortunately, it is undeniable, there is unmet legal need; that is evident in a lot of the meetings I have and my experience in dealing with the courts.

The Victoria Law Foundation is looking at this issue with world-leading research, really quite compelling and important research, which helps to identify some of the barriers and some of the lack of legal knowledge. But I think what was particularly confronting to me was actually a lot of people’s inability to identify they have got a legal problem, which can cascade and cause problems further.

So there are a lot of people that are doing work in this regard. You have mentioned Victoria Legal Aid. They do a fantastic service, community legal centres also do. Of course they do have to have means tests to direct their services to those most in need. We acknowledge that obviously with pressures such as rising cost of living, more and more people are struggling financially and that does have a flow-on effect to people’s ability to access legal representation.

I would acknowledge there is actually a growing cohort of people who want to represent themselves as well, so responding to that cohort is also proving challenging. But courts provide a lot of guidance about court processes on their websites. There are also resources such as the legal handbook, which provides a practical guide for law in Victoria and is a resource we see for our CLCs in the community.

I do not know about you, but I review it quite regularly to make sure that my knowledge is contemporary on issues that come up as well. Legal aid also have a lot of information on their website. I also find their information really user-friendly and a good basis to help people identify if they have a legal issue and what they can do in relation to first steps in addressing that.

There is a small, dedicated team within the Magistrates’ Court for self-represented users in federal jurisdiction matters, and some of those crossover with the VCAT jurisdiction. The legal profession also have a very proud history of pro bono work, and it is part of our legal contracting that any firms that are eligible for government work must commit to a component of pro bono work to be able to be eligible to be on our panel, for example.

There are a range of measures. A lot of people have focused on this, and we will continue to be interested in ways that we can close and make this gap as small as possible.

David ETTERSHANK (Western Metropolitan)

I thank the Attorney-General, who has demonstrated some prescience and made my supplementary redundant.


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