Inquiry into the Victorian Government's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

May 20, 2020 |

The Federation of Community Legal Centres and Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service were invited to present to the Victorian Parliament's Public Accounts and Estimates Committee this week on the work being done by community legal centres during the COVID-19 health crisis as well as the ongoing need for further action.

The Federation was represented by Director of Policy and Engagement, Shorna Moore, and Justice Connect Homeless Law's Principal Lawyer, Samantha Sowerwine. The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service was represented by their CEO, Nerita Waight.

Ms Moore spoke to the role of community legal centres on the frontline of the crisis, working with hospitals, schools, maternal child health centres, homelessness services and others through a range of justice partnerships. She commended the Victorian Government on its funding for community legal support and its policy interventions in a number of areas. She also covered the important work of specialist legal centres in areas including employment, tenancy, social security and financial security.

"Renters need our help keeping a roof over their heads. People who have lost their jobs need our help to exercise their employment rights and receive fair payments. For example, parents (especially mothers) who are in the very difficult position of juggling family responsibilities and working from home."

She also talked about how community legal centres have adapted to remain accessible in line with social distancing requirements and that we are in the early stages of a long journey from crisis to recovery.

"Right now victims of family violence are isolated in their homes and are most at risk. We know they need our help to obtain an intervention order and make safe arrangements for their children. We know that many at risk young people who have homes that are unsafe and who would normally be at school and they need our help."

"We are concerned about financial hardship and the impact this will have on people's ability to stay connected to essential services like energy, gas and telecommunications. Once the moratorium on evictions is lifted, we expect to see a surge in tenants facing eviction due to accumulated rental arrears that people are never going to be able to pay. As restrictions lift, we are concerned that there will be a spike in family violence as women make arrangements to leave and perpetrators lose control."

Ms Waight spoke about the work of VALS and the increased risk to Aboriginal communities during COVID-19, particularly Aboriginal people and families in the criminal justice and child protection systems. She highlighted a number of issues that need to be addressed and called for more flexible and culturally appropriate responses and greater independent oversight.

"Aboriginal communities are particularly at risk during this time because our people are already disproportionately impacted by housing instability, homelessness, unemployment, family violence, poverty, high rates of chronic illnesses and mental health issues.

"We are already seeing, and expect to see, increased legal needs of communities including in tenancy, debt, family law, child protection and criminal law."

"Aboriginal people are over-represented in the criminal law and child protection systems. They have been disproportionately impacted by the significant changes implemented in these areas to respond to COVID-19."

"Despite some positive aspects in the Government's response, VALS is concerned about the treatment of Aboriginal people in prisons, including mandatory protective quarantine for all people entering prisons and increased lockdowns in facilities such as Port Phillip where clients have reported being in their cells for twenty hours a day for four weeks.”

“Court delays, reduced services and self-isolation restrictions mean that parents’ capacity to work towards family reunification within the specified timeframes is limited. Legislative amendment is required to ensure that Aboriginal families in the child protection system are not unfairly penalised as a result of COVID-19.”

Ms Sowerwine supported the Federation's evidence to the Committee where she had particular expertise, including on the implementation of the 'moratorium' on evictions for Victorian renters.

"As the Attorney-General has acknowledged, we have seen a huge increase in need for legal assistance in relation to tenancies. In particular, we've been seeing a new cohort of people who have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19, found themselves in financial hardship and are worried about being evicted and losing their housing.

"We welcome the Victorian Government's response to tenancies to ensure that evictions only occur in certain circumstances and where it is reasonable and proportionate. We have also welcomed the new dispute resolution scheme that enables landlords and renters to negotiate rent reductions.

"It is still early days in seeing how these measures work, but we hope that these protections will mean evictions only occur in exceptional circumstances."

The Federation welcomed the invitation to take part in this process and to provide feedback directly to members of parliament on Government initiatives and the further work needed to support all members of the community through this challenging period.

Alongside community legal centres, we will continue to advocate for additional policy and funding action to ensure that the laws and processes implemented during COVID-19 treat all members of the community equally and with respect - and that access to justice isn't a victim of new public health measures.

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