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The Basics of Applying for Legal Aid in Victoria

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Lady JusticeWritten by Amelia Ramsay, Associate, Doogue + George Defence Lawyers

How am I going to afford a lawyer? Can I get legal aid to help me pay for legal representation? These are usually some of the earliest questions that arise when someone has been charged with a criminal offence and needs to go to Court. Here is some information about what you will need to apply for legal aid in Victoria and some information about eligibility.

The Application Process

When you meet with your lawyer, you will need to ask them about applying for legal aid funding for your matter. What this means is that a lawyer will apply to Victoria Legal Aid on your behalf and ask them to fund part or all of your legal fees.

You will first need to complete an application form. Below is a link to the form. You may wish to complete the form in advance of your meeting with a lawyer or simply familiarise yourself with the questions you will be asked.

https://www.legalaid.vic.gov.au/sites/www.legalaid.vic.gov.au/files/vla-grants-of-legal-assistance-guide-and-application-form-12-2019.pdf

Lawyers who are familiar with legal aid in Victoria will generally conduct a preliminary means test with you when you first ask for legal aid. The main factor will be how much money you earn. If you earn over the threshold amount or have any large assets then a lawyer will generally advise that it is not worth making an application. However, there are some factors that will tilt the scales in favour of legal aid funding including whether you have children you support, debts, credit cards and loans. If the money going out is more than the money coming in, your lawyer may advise you to make an application.

Once the form is completed and necessary supporting documentation forwarded to Victoria Legal Aid, they will assess your application and provide a response. It may take a couple of weeks to receive a response depending on how complicated your financial situation is.

Eligibility

There are three main factors that determine your eligibility for legal aid assistance.

  1. Your financial situation using a means test;
  2. What your case is about; and
  3. The benefit you are likely to get from your legal case.

The means test considers:

  • money you get from work, Centrelink benefits or other sources
  • if you own anything of value, like a house or a car
  • your weekly living expenses.

The means test also looks at whether you support anyone else, or if they support you. Importantly, your partner’s income and assets are usually included when determining whether you are eligible for assistance.

You will need to provide evidence to support what you tell your lawyer about your financial situation. This might include bank statements, loan documents or a rates notice – both yours and your partner’s. If you receive a Centrelink benefit, you will be asked to provide authority for Victoria Legal Aid to contact Centrelink and obtain confirmation of your entitlements. The sooner your gather all this material together and provide it to your lawyer, the sooner your application will be processed. If you are able to provide copies during your first meeting with your lawyer, you are already winning.

To prepare, make a list of the income you receive whether it is from paid employment, rent paid to you or dividends from shares. Then make a list of all your expenditure, bills, loan repayments, credit card debts, your child’s care or education or support and what you spend on food.

Secondly, what your case is about will determine whether you are eligible for legal aid funding. This includes whether your charges are summary or indictable; what type of charges – such as violence, dishonesty, sexual offences, homicide or terrorism; which Court you are required to attend; and whether you plan to plead guilty or not guilty.

Thirdly, the benefit you are likely to get from your legal case. Victoria Legal Aid wants to know that their financial assistance is going to make a difference to what happens with your matter. This does not mean you have to guarantee that you will win but there needs to be some sort of benefit. That may be shortening the length of a trial or the difference between a sentence involving imprisonment and a community-based order.

The main factor you need to be concerned with is your financial situation and providing evidence or documentation to support what you put in your application form. Your lawyer and Victoria Legal Aid will work out the rest.

If you are granted financial assistance in your matter, you must remember to report any changes to your income or financial situation during the life of your Court matter. In some cases, this could be for a few years. Similar to a Centrelink allowance, if you start earning more money it is likely that your funding will be reduced and if you fail to report the change, you may be asked to repay money down the track.

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