What we do

We provide high quality legal advice and representation for people charged with criminal offences who cannot otherwise afford it and who meet our eligibility criteria, with a focus on people who are disadvantaged or at risk of social exclusion. We also:

  • influence the criminal justice system to provide timely justice, the fair hearing of charges and appropriate outcomes
  • ensure that people charged with offences are treated with dignity, are well-informed and are guided appropriately through the criminal justice system
  • improve community understanding of criminal justice and behavioural issues.

Read more about the work of our Criminal Law sub-programs.

Our services

The Criminal Law program’s core services are to provide:

  • duty lawyers at courts, advice in the community, advice in prisons, education and legal representation for summary and indictable crime matters
  • legal representation on appeals in the County Court, Court of Appeal and High Court
  • advice in youth justice facilities, duty lawyers at the Children's Court, advice and education in the community for young people and legal representation in youth crime matters.

Read our Criminal Law services facts and figures.

Clients

  • 48,364 unique clients* (up by 5%)
  • 24% presented with two criminal law problems and 19% with three to five
  • 10,145 or 21% from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds**
  • 1,952 or 4% 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 $4.0 million 8.9% of Commonwealth expenditure
State $67.5 million 72.2% of state expenditure
Total $71.5 million 51.6% of total expenditure

* This excludes expenditure for community legal centres.

Key achievements

Delivering high quality criminal trials

Engaging with a broad range of stakeholders last year enabled us to collaboratively identify a number of areas for improving the quality of legally aided trials. This consultation has led to the implementation of a number of outcomes including the brief analysis and case strategy tool to improve the quality of early case preparation and resolution, supported by a specific brief analysis fee. We also retained at-court trial instructing fees in a more flexible and accountable way.

A key outcome of this consultation was the introduction of the Criminal Trial Preferred Barrister List to ensure quality of counsel in publicly funded trials. The expression of interest process attracted over 250 applications from barristers. In addition, our major trials framework to be introduced in January 2016 will enable greater oversight of legally aided trials that run for more than 15 days to ensure we are managing this major expenditure in an efficient, effective and economic way.

We also re-structured our in-house indictable practice by merging our indictable and sexual offences specialist teams. The creation of a unified Indictable Crime sub-program led by the one manager will address concerns around vicarious trauma associated with the exclusive practice of sexual offence work and also enable continuous improvement around client service delivery, staff development, stakeholder and policy work. 

Contributing to Victoria’s first guideline judgment 

We played a key role in the formulation of Victoria’s first guideline judgment Boulton v The Queen [2014] VSCA 342, which has already made a significant impact to the sentencing landscape by encouraging the greater use of community correction orders and reducing the impact of overcrowding in our prisons. Victoria Legal Aid submitted that a guideline judgment would promote consistency and transparency in sentencing thereby increasing community confidence in the justice system. The court’s guideline provides important guidance to the lower courts on how community correction orders combine flexible conditions to both punish and rehabilitate offenders. Our close collaboration with stakeholders ultimately saw the Court of Appeal adopt many aspects of our legal submissions within their judgment.

Following the guideline judgment we delivered training to our staff lawyers and the profession so they could apply the judgment and understand their new obligations in supporting clients and the courts when making submissions around community correction orders.

Timely and appropriate resolution of summary matters

We continued our focus this year on the timely and appropriate resolution of summary matters, which enabled us to deliver services to more clients (41,608 compared with 39,471 in 2013–14). We also continued to support the operation of the weekend court and assisted with the rollout of video-conferencing facilities in the Magistrates’ Court, which will help reduce delays and improve conditions for our clients.

Improving the quality of legally aided appeals

In finalising our Criminal Appeals Review we identified a number of areas for improving the quality of legally aided appeals. We analysed over 100 Court of Appeal sentencing decisions and engaged with a broad range of stakeholders including victims of crime. Since adopting actions for improvement in September 2014, we have amended our appeals guideline, introduced a more rigorous grants approval process, introduced a guideline for elections to renew an appeal refused by a single judge, and provided training on preparing high quality advice and appeals. Developed with the assistance of stakeholders, the training covered the use of a compulsory checklist designed to help identify meritorious appeal grounds.

We also commenced discussions with the Court of Appeal and the Office of Public Prosecutions to provide the feedback given to us by victims such that the court and the Office of Public Prosecutions could improve how they support and notify victims.

Improving informal diversion options for children and young people

As a result of our continued advocacy in and out of court, it is now widely accepted that the law relating to diversion in the adult courts applies in an appropriately modified form in the Children’s Court. While this is a major step forward and a significant improvement, we remain committed to advocating for a legislated diversion scheme for children and young people across Victoria.

Working towards this goal, we sat on the steering committee for the newly introduced Youth Diversion Pilot Program in the Children’s Court, which commenced in select regional locations in June 2015. We also worked closely with Victoria Police to establish diversion opportunities for young people in locations where this pilot is not available.

With the support of Victoria Police, Youth Justice and the Children’s Court in Shepparton, our Shepparton office established an informal youth crime diversion initiative, where none had previously operated. The 12-month pilot is targeted at children and young people in state residential or out-of-home care, and will contribute to an evidence base to further advocate for a formal legislative youth diversion scheme.

Challenges

Responding to increased demand

Overall we have seen a marked increase in demand for duty lawyer services, in part due to changes made to eligibility guidelines in 2013–14 but also as a result of a sharp increase in police initiations.

Family violence is pervasive in the summary criminal justice system, and the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, and the societal issues it is concerned with, present profound challenges. The most significant issue for the legal response to family violence is the level of demand in the system. Over a three year period, Victoria Legal Aid has seen a 100 per cent increase in duty lawyer services for breaches of family violence intervention orders and a 19 per cent increase in the number of grants for the same (we assisted with 5,176 breach of intervention order matters compared with 3,985 in 2013–14).

Our staff have responded well to meeting this increased demand. However responding effectively to the increasing number of matters involving our representation of defendants is a key challenge. This is exacerbated by the lack of appropriate services and programs to address the underlying causes of family violence.

We also experienced an increase in Sex Offender Registration Act 2004 matters (101 compared with 57 in 2013 –14) and Serious Sex Offender (Detention and Supervision) Act 2009 matters (117 compared with 105 in 2013–14), with more applications, reviews and breaches. 

Representing clients affected by the drug ice

The increasing prevalence and insidious nature of the drug ‘ice’ has made working with clients under its effect incredibly challenging for our lawyers. Clients using ice often present with complex legal needs and require a higher intensity of service, placing an additional burden on our service delivery and on our staff. We expect these clients will also suffer lasting and complex mental health issues as a consequence of their drug addiction, which will also present future challenges in terms of re-offending and how to best address the underlying addiction contributing to or causing criminal offending.

Keeping pace with legislative reform

A large number of legislative reforms were introduced in 2014–15 which significantly changed the criminal law and the laws of sentencing. We prepared an unprecedented number of policy submissions and advice in response to government reforms relying on our in-house expertise and client experiences to ensure new laws operated in a practical and balanced way. These reforms included the introduction of baseline sentencing legislation, the introduction of new offences and penalties around breaching orders, unfitness and mental impairment proceedings to the Children’s Court jurisdiction, and significant changes to jury directions, sexual offences, statutory defences and the laws of complicity. Making sure our lawyers and the private profession felt supported through information and training has been imperative in ensuring that lawyers are confident and keep their skills and knowledge up to date so they can provide high quality legal advice and representation to clients as they navigate an increasingly complex criminal justice system.

Future challenges

In 2015 –16 we expect to see:

  • more demand for all of our criminal law services particularly in relation to family violence, summary crime and sexual offences
  • increased pressure and costs flowing from the baseline sentencing scheme which is expected to lead to longer hearings, fewer pleas and less certainty for accused and victims in the criminal trial and sentencing process
  • increased appeals in the Court of Appeal around the new baseline sentencing regime and other legislative reforms that will require clarification and guidance
  • continued demand for our clients to be able to access appropriate diversionary programs and non-legal support and rehabilitation programs no matter where they live in Victoria
  • an increased need for services that address vicarious trauma and staff well-being given the risks associated with managing more family violence cases and those cases involving ice addicted clients.

Outlook

We look forward to fully embedding the outcomes of the Delivering High Quality Criminal Trials project and our review of criminal appeals. We will also continue to focus on improving informal diversion options for young people, whilst advocating for equal access to diversionary programs and rehabilitative supports across Victoria, recognising that long term investment in rehabilitation will contribute to a reduction in re-offending which protects the community.

A much changed legislative landscape, in particular brought about by the reform to jury directions, sexual offences and the introduction of baseline sentencing, will require ongoing monitoring and training to ensure our clients receive legal advice which is timely, precise and which appropriately guides their decision making.

In the coming year we will undertake a review of our youth crime legal services to intensify our work around creating opportunities for timely intervention for at risk children and young people.