What we do

Our work in civil and administrative law aims to contribute to a fairer, more inclusive and rights-respecting community that respects human rights.

We deal with matters such as social security, mental health, guardianship and administration, infringements, immigration, tenancy, debt, discrimination, sexual harassment and victims of crime.

Read more about the work of our Civil Justice sub-programs.

Our services

The Civil Justice program’s objectives are to:

  • deliver services that help people deal with their legal issues at the earliest opportunity
  • negotiate and mediate to achieve fair outcomes for clients without going to court
  • advocate for clients’ rights through representation in courts, tribunals and review boards.

Read our Civil Justice services facts and figures.

Clients

  • 13,661 unique clients* (up by 13%)
  • 20% presented with two civil law problems and 13% with three to five
  • 4,303 or 31% from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds**
  • 277 or 2% from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds

* These are clients who accessed one or more services during the year, including early intervention services, duty lawyer services, dispute resolution services and grants of legal assistance.

** This is based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics definition of people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. It includes people who speak a language other than English at home and people who were born in a non-English-speaking country.

Program operating expenditure*

Income sources Expenditure % expenditure
Commonwealth $6.3 million 14.0% of Commonwealth expenditure
State $7.9 million 8.4% of state expenditure
Total $14.2 million 10.2% of total expenditure

* This excludes expenditure for community legal centres.

Key achievements

Increasing help for clients with a mental illness

We significantly increased our assistance to people with a mental illness, representing 1,137 people before the Mental Health Tribunal (661 representations in 2013–14). In addition, we doubled our outreach advice services (29 compared with 14 in 2013–14) and outreach duty lawyer services (28 compared with 12 in 2013–14).

The new Mental Health Act 2014 commenced on 1 July 2014 and brought about major changes to the compulsory assessment and treatment of people diagnosed with mental illness. We agreed to deliver a new non-legal service for people on compulsory treatment orders, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services. Our new Independent Mental Health Advocacy service will commence in September 2015, with non-legal advocates assisting people to have a say in their treatment, care and recovery. Our non-legal advocates will be located in Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo and Dandenong.

Our response to the new Act also included a major revision of our duty lawyer service, broad communication of developments under the Act, training and further developing our extensive practice expertise.

Increasing equality for the whole community

We achieved landmark outcomes for clients who experienced discrimination.

In one case it was found that morning sickness is a disability, providing increased protection against discrimination for pregnant employees under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.

As the result of another case, changes were made to the policy of a major health service where a patient requests same-gender care, particularly benefitting women who, because of their beliefs or experience of sexual violence, would be distressed by being physically examined by a male doctor.

We also succeeded in a ground-breaking discrimination claim in which a man with multiple disabilities had been banned for more than five years from all buildings at his local council because it alleged he was disruptive. The outcome included an order that the councillors, chief executive and directors complete training on the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006.

Recognising how vital addressing the needs of vulnerable Victorians through this program is, the State government this year committed to fund the Equal Opportunity Legal Service on an ongoing basis.

Using education and information to increase awareness and understanding of laws

Amendments to the Migration Act 1958 in late 2014 mean the mandatory cancellation of visas for prisoners who fail the ‘character test.’ Once notified, a prisoner has a very short timeframe to challenge the decision. In response we developed a range of education and self-help materials to assist prisoners and lawyers unfamiliar with migration law; we attended prisons with members of our community legal education team to educate staff and prisoners; and we began a student intern program to help prisoners prepare submissions.

We also helped to develop a range of self-help materials which provide clear information and guidance about how to deal with fines. Their development recognises that the infringements scheme still remains confusing and, when caught up in it, all some people need is clear information. This material has also increased our lawyers’ capacity to provide more intense services to people who require them.

Helping more clients adversely affected by Centrelink decisions

We continued to increase the number of locations where we provide specialist legal services to clients adversely affected by Centrelink decisions, this year expanding to the Eastern Community Legal Centre in Healesville. We helped more clients in outer suburban and regional Victoria (1,224 compared with 980 in 2013–14), and provided more advice, minor work and litigation file assistance to eligible clients.

Helping to mobilise a legal response to disaster

Disaster Legal Help Victoria was quick to respond when 400 people were evacuated following a fire in an apartment block in November 2014. Our lawyers worked with colleagues from Inner Melbourne Community Legal Centre and Consumer Action Legal Centre to provide the evacuees with timely legal advice at the emergency services relief centre and through the dedicated telephone advice line. Nearly 90 per cent of clients were born overseas, and the incident revealed overcrowding issues and associated residential tenancies problems. The value of this assistance led to all state emergency services making Disaster Legal Help Victoria a part of future disaster responses.

Challenges

Meeting increased demand for clients with mental illness

We cannot assist every in-patient and community patient. The 46 electro-convulsive therapy treatment hearings we undertook before the Mental Health Tribunal this year is a fraction of the total heard. Likewise, we completed 181 compulsory treatment order hearings, or under 10 per cent of the total heard. We are also concerned that we may not be able to sustain the high number of Mental Health Tribunal representations we achieved this year without increased resourcing to meet demand.

Responding to Centrelink rule changes

The May 2014 Federal Budget proposed a number of significant changes to social security law, many impacting on our priority clients. More people adversely impacted by Centrelink decisions have sought our assistance because of the tightening of Disability Support Pension (DSP) qualifications, and also the requirements around how long a recipient can receive this pension while overseas. The impact of these changes on our clients has been exacerbated by the ever-increasing gap between Disability Support Pension and Newstart Allowance rates.

Future challenges

In 2015–16 we expect to see:

  • continued demand for assistance before the Mental Health Tribunal
  • increased demand for our discrimination law services
  • the need for us to inform others of major changes to the Fines Reform Act 2014, and to advocate for the development of proper administrative systems underpinning the reforms
  • uncertainty around legal issues arising in social security ‘omission prosecutions’ and an increase in social security prosecutions
  • clients impacted by the amalgamation of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, as they will no longer have an automatic right of legal representation at the first external and independent review of a Centrelink decision
  • an increase in National Disability Insurance Scheme appeals at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal
  • clients impacted by further changes to social security law, including the possible loss of disability support pensions for forensic patients at Thomas Embling Hospital.

Outlook

We will progress the expansion of our outreach program to help clients disputing Centrelink administrative decisions or other actions, and look for opportunities and service delivery options. From mid-July, services will be delivered from Western Community Legal Centre in Werribee.

Committed to helping reverse the cycle of family violence offending, we will also begin to focus on cases involving women who have had adverse Centrelink decisions or been charged with social security offences in the context of actual or threatened violence or financial abuse by their partner. We will also advocate for law reform that will protect victims of family violence from discrimination, and promote gender equality more broadly.

We will continue to scrutinise decisions made by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute social security recipients, as we are finding that people are being charged again for failing to notify Centrelink of a change in circumstances. Our work will help ensure that people are not prosecuted unfairly in these proceedings.

Following the introduction of a ‘fast track’ review process for people who arrived during 2013–14, we expect to see a large increase in requests for assistance with asylum seeker applications. We will continue to work with others to develop a service response in readiness for the new process being tested, as the prohibition of some 30,000 people across Australia from making an application for a protection visa is lifted.