What is the Sentencing Advisory Council?

The Sentencing Advisory Council was set up to bridge the gaps between the community, the courts and government by informing, educating and advising on sentencing issues.

We sat down with Chair, Professor Arie Freiberg, to hear about the work of the Sentencing Advisory Council and the factors that go into sentencing.

‘A sentence is designed to meet many objectives. Punishment, denunciation, rehabilitation, deterrence, reformation, a whole lot of different factors, and the task of the judge is to reconcile those.’

Watch full interview above.

Read more about the work of the Sentencing Advisory Council.

This year’s Knowledge Grants awarded

Victoria Law Foundation is pleased to announce the recipients of this year’s Knowledge Grants.

This is the first year that VLF has offered Knowledge Grants. This funding will support community legal organisations to better understand their communities through improved data and information.

We were overwhelmed by a wide range of outstanding applications and it was very difficult to choose – thanks to everyone who made a submission.

Congratulations to our four successful applicants who are sure to make valuable contributions to the sector and community through their projects. We look forward to sharing their results.

Our successful applicants are:

Police applications for intervention orders and women’s experience of the family violence justice system in a post-Royal Commission landscape

Advocacy and Rights Centre Ltd

$49,984 (excl. GST)

Since the Royal Commission into family violence, the police response to family violence has intensified and resulted in a significant increase of family violence intervention orders brought by police. This project will explore the impact on affected women’s experience of the justice process as well as their safety and wellbeing.

Moving towards evidence based practice – How to understand elder abuse as a civil law problem in the Barwon region

Barwon Community Legal Service Inc

$50,000 (excl. GST)

Barwon Community Legal Service and project partner, Deakin University, will investigate the civil law aspects of elder abuse in the Barwon region. Research findings will inform service delivery, interventions and responses to elder abuse to meet the needs of a growing ageing population.

User centered research of priority groups in the ‘missing middle’

Justice Connect

$50,000 (excl. GST)

This research project will focus on three priority groups – people with disability, CALD communities, and women/single parents and explore their capacity to use online self-help resources to resolve a legal problem. Findings will inform better design and implementation of digital self-help resources.

The growth of community housing: what does it mean for tenants?

Banyule Community Health (West Heidelberg Community Legal Service)

$43,925 (excl. GST)

West Heidelberg Community Legal Service, with project partners Tenants Victoria and Inner Melbourne Community Legal, will collect new data on legal outcomes for community housing tenants by looking at the management of housing issues and tenancy disputes.

Knowledge Grant applications are now closed. We will offer Knowledge Grants again in 2020/21.

Community Legal Grants and Small Grants are now open. If you have an idea for a project, see our website for more information or contact Melanie Rygl, Grants Manager on (03) 9604 8100.

Administrative data – capturing the full impact of the legal assistance sector?

Victoria’s legal assistance sector (like Legal Aid and community legal centres) includes some of the world’s best services responding to clients’ specific and complex needs. But does the data currently measure its full contribution to our community? If not, what can be done about it?

Data can play an important part in monitoring the work: are you responding to the needs of your community? Are you making a difference? Which problems are prevalent and which approaches work to help people best?

Services routinely collect data as part of their day to day business – to monitor their services and account to funders. But painting the right picture with that data is paramount. In this project, we’re exploring what data is being collected and whether it captures or undersells the complex contribution of the legal assistance sector.

The Project

Victoria Law Foundation is mapping the administrative data collected and used by Victoria’s civil justice sector. Through structured interviews with the legal assistance sector, and then with courts and tribunals, we hope to understand how administrative data is being captured and used, exploring risks, challenges and successes, and whether it can help tailor services more effectively.

The project is being led by Dr Hugh McDonald, Principal Researcher, and Cosima McRae, Senior Researcher.

‘Mapping this information will make an important contribution to evidence-based policy making in the civil justice system. It will also help identify knowledge gaps and opportunities to improve how legal services are delivered,’ Dr McDonald said.

‘The impact of this work could be significant, with robust and well analysed administrative data having strong potential to inform access to justice for Victorians,’ Ms McRae said.

Our findings will be captured in several reports, the first looking closely at the legal assistance sector.

Find out more about our research plan.

The rights of people to make their own medical decisions

‘Everyone has the right to play an active role in making decisions about their own health and to receive the support they need to do so.’

That’s why Reinforce and the Office of the Public Advocate (OPA) produced two new brochures with the help of a small grant from Victoria Law Foundation – to highlight the importance of clear and respectful communication in medical situations in relation to people with intellectual disability or cognitive impairment.

Reinforce is a self advocacy organisation, run for and by people with an intellectual disability, with the goal of assisting, supporting and encouraging independence. The Office of the Public Advocate shares this goal, promoting the rights, interests and dignity of people with disability.

How these resources will make a difference

The brochure aimed at medical practitioners clarifies the role of supported decision making, and illustrates the importance of thoughtful communication. A series of case studies highlight common issues, including the use of jargon when communicating medical advice, and rude behaviours such as talking directly to the support worker, rather than the patient.

Reinforce and the OPA have also produced an easy to read brochure for consumers, to help them better understand their rights and communicate more effectively with medical practitioners.

Executive Director of Victoria Law Foundation, Lynne Haultain, attended the launch of these new resources with Grants Manager, Melanie Rygl this week. Lynne spoke about the impact these resources are going to have for the community. ‘Supporting [this project] was an easy decision. This work meets a critical legal need for a significant audience – supporting the independence of people with an intellectual disability.’

‘It’s an empathetic approach that puts the individual at the centre of decision making, encourages people to connect on a human level, and gives practical steps on how to provide that support.’


The 2019 Law and You Forum explores suppression orders in Victoria

VLF The Law and You Forum: Suppression orders in Victoria supporting or distorting justice? Held at the State Library.

Last night a highly distinguished panel of experts explored whether suppression orders imposed by courts are supporting or distorting justice at our 2019 Law and You Forum.

The Hon Frank Vincent AO QC, Louise Milligan, Dr Matthew Collins AM QC and Rod Ratcliffe addressed over 140 attendees at the State Library of Victoria’s Village Roadshow Theatrette, with more tuning in online to hear about the complex issues surrounding suppression.

Victoria Law Foundation Executive Director and MC Lynne Haultain opened the evening posing some tough questions to the panel and the audience: does suppression stifle democracy by keeping the work of the courts under wraps? If suppression orders are intended to reduce the risk of prejudice in trials, what does that say about attitudes to juries? And in this era of the free flow of information – is there actually any point in imposing suppression orders?

The panellists shared their diverse perspectives on suppression, having experienced it in various ways throughout their careers as journalists, judges, barristers and victim advocates.

From the journalists point of view, Louise Milligan questioned the consistency of the application of suppression orders. ‘The Cardinal [George Pell] was granted privileges that we haven’t seen with other criminal defendants.’ She did however acknowledge that suppression orders are sometimes necessary in order to protect victims – something which international news outlets don’t always consider in their reporting, jeopardising their effectiveness.

The Honourable Frank Vincent suggested that suppression orders reflect an inherent paternalism in the law. He explains that ‘much of our law reflects the inherited prejudices of earlier generations… these notions come from a time of an almost elitist approach to juries ’ Dr Matthew Collins supported the idea that it is time for an updated approach, suggesting that the current culture around suppression orders in Victoria was borne out of Melbourne’s gangland wars, and that it was time to move past that.

Rod Ratcliffe brought the victims’ perspective – a group not always well considered in the legal process, but one suppression orders are often intended to protect. ‘Victims aren’t all the same, so whilst a suppression order can be very valuable, even victims who have become victims of similar crimes at similar levels can respond in different ways… the perspective of the individual victim for that case needs to be heard in some way.’

The panel came to a consensus that juries are generally better able to separate hearsay from fact than is reflected in the current system, so suppression orders are often unnecessary. And in an increasingly connected world, it is unrealistic to suggest that juries should consist of ‘clean-slate’ individuals. As Rod Ratcliffe put it, if the knowledge is unavoidable, ‘we need to challenge the idea that the knowledge itself prejudices the trial.’

The full 2019 Law and You Forum is available to watch below.

About the Adult Parole Board

Parole is the conditional release of a prisoner, where they continue to serve their sentence in the community on conditions set by the Adult Parole Board; an independent, decision-making body established under Victorian legislation.

Parole exists due to recognition of ‘the difficulties that so many people have leaving a structured, disciplined, fairly rigid environment such as prison, and re-entering the community.’

We sat down with Chair of the Adult Parole Board, His Honour Peter Couzens, to hear first-hand what they do. Judge Couzens also shared reflections on his role and experience, allowing us to get a better insight into life on the Board and the challenges involved.

‘We hope people get through their parole, but if we feel that they’re failing, and if the safety and protection of the community is at risk, we’ll cancel them, and return them to custody.’

Judge Couzens clarifies that ‘the Board can never eliminate risk… We’re dealing with human beings. Many of whom are fractured, often through fault other than themselves.’

See our interview with Judge Couzens below.

To find out more, see other videos from our interview:

Find out more about the organisations that make up Victoria’s legal sector.

Many Australians feel locked out of legal help

Most Australians think courts are inaccessible and lawyers are costly, complex and slow to resolve problems. These are the key findings of Law…What is it good for? How people see the law, lawyers and courts in Australia, the first research report from the Victoria Law Foundation.

In an Australia-wide survey of over 1,800 people, Australians don’t always think that the law and lawyers are relevant or important when presented with legal problem scenarios.

The survey explored –

  • people’s understanding of the relevance of law
  • whether people feel lawyers are important in relation to everyday scenarios that raise legal issues, including common problems like employment, renting, family violence and neighbourhood disputes
  • people’s perceptions of how accessible courts and lawyers are.

What we found

People tend to think that the law is relevant and that lawyers are important for problems like unsafe working conditions or serious personal injury, but matters like trouble paying credit card debt or underpayment of wages are far less likely to be seen as legal.

People typically regard courts as ‘inaccessible’ – complex, costly, slow and hard to understand. Lawyers are generally seen as more accessible than courts, but less so when it came to cost, complexity or speed.

Demographics matter

Differences in demographic characteristics came through strongly in the study, showing the law tends to be seen as less relevant if you –

  • live in regional, rural and remote Australia
  • have fewer educational qualifications, or
  • speak a language other than English at home.

On the other hand, some groups saw the law as more relevant and lawyers more important, including –  

  • women, for legal problems involving family violence and workplace power imbalances
  • non-English speakers for problems involving authority figures (such as police)
  • those with limited digital capability.

Mental illness was also a clear indicator. People in this group are more likely than others to view courts and lawyers as significantly less accessible, though they also see the law and lawyers as more relevant, even for less serious legal problems.

Where next?

‘If people don’t see their problems as legal, they may not get the help they need. Understanding where people are in their levels of understanding offers valuable insights which can be used to improve public legal education. And it helps services deliver assistance that starts and ends with the needs and capabilities of users,’ said the Foundation’s Research Director Professor Nigel Balmer.  

‘These findings on accessibility of courts and lawyers show that there will be significant benefit for the justice system and the legal profession in increasing transparency and understanding, and addressing negative perceptions of fairness and accessibility,’ Professor Balmer said.

Law... What is it good for? report cover

Find out more about our new report Law…What is it Good For?

Read the report
Find out more about our research plan
Meet our research team

Local workshop connects the courts with the African community to address concerns

African Australian Multicultural Employment & Youth Services (AAMEYS) held a workshop in Footscray during August connecting magistrates and lawyers with members of the African community to address their concerns about the high incarceration rates of African young people in our legal system.

Project coordinator, CEO of AAMEYS Dr Berhan Ahmed emphasises the importance of running such events to break down barriers for the African community. ‘An alarmingly high percentage of African youth are being arrested and held in custody. The difficulties people have in understanding the legal system impacts families and communities as a whole.’

Funded by a Victoria Law Foundation Small Grant, this sold-out event allowed members of the community to tell their stories, difficulties and challenges in the Magistrates Court, and learn more about our legal system.

Dr Ahmed was pleased with the great turn-out and feedback received after the event. ‘Community members, leaders, mothers and fathers attended. Most participants were very positive after the workshop finished. A mother said, ”I wish I would have known this earlier to save my child from going to prison.”

47 people from the new and emerging communities attended, with others sharing the presentation on social media. Through networking and social media, information from the workshop reached over 1000 people.

AAMEYS continues to minimise barriers and improve access for African Australian young people and their families through employment, education, mentoring and professional services. Find out more about AAMEYS on their website, or learn about our grants program.

You can learn more about how Victorian legal system works in our free publication.

Preventing motor vehicle crime by young people

Gateway Local Learning and Employment Network (Gateway LLEN) has launched new resources in partnership with Victoria Police to tackle the issue of car theft and culpable driving by young people. Funded by a grant from Victoria Law Foundation, the videos and resources will help teachers and guardians to talk to young people about the impact of motor vehicle crime.

Sometimes good kids make bad decisions. Whether due to peer pressure, spur-of-the moment decisions, or lack of awareness of the consequences of their actions, young people can find themselves in dangerous and illegal situations. When these situations involve a motor vehicle, the consequences can be catastrophic.

Based in Melbourne’s East, Gateway LLEN identified a gap in education for young people about motor vehicle crime after growing concern in the community. They created these resources to highlight the severity of this issue, the factors that contribute to this type of offending, and what both adults and young people should be aware of in order to prevent it.

What resources are available?

Written resources are available to help teachers and guardians when discussing the videos to understand the different motor vehicle crimes in Victoria, their impact and their consequences.

The impact of poor decisions

‘Victims pick up that guilt, or you get parents who pick up guilt because their kid was involved in something, or schoolteachers who live with it, or mates who say, ‘I should have stopped him, and I didn’t.’’

One poor decision can impact an entire community. This type of offending has a ripple effect on the lives and futures of the perpetrators, victims, families, and the wider community.

The choices young people are faced with

‘They’re not bad kids, they just get caught up in that moment.’

Good kids can come to make bad choices. It can be difficult to weigh up the long term impact your actions may have when making a spur-of-the-moment decision with your friends, but the consequences can be very serious and long lasting.

What is Co-Offending?

‘I can’t understand why I’m here, because I wasn’t the one who stole the car, I wasn’t the one who drove the car.’

Many young people get into trouble, even if they are not the person breaking into the car and are just tagging along or keeping watch. If you don’t attempt to stop the offending or remove yourself from the situation, you are equally as responsible for the offence and can face the same consequences.

Sobering headlines

‘The headlines are not surprising, but they are heartbreaking because they are pretty avoidable.’

We often see headlines in the media about car theft, crashes, and loss of life as a result. For every headline there are lives that have been permanently affected.

The legacy of poor decisions

‘If we can stop something then and there, we can stop the flow on effect. It’s one of those sliding doors moments.’

The legacy of one bad choice can be long lasting. Friends and family who lost loved ones feel the impact of such decisions for life. It is important to remember there are support services available for young people to help prevent such events before they occur.

For more information about these resources, contact Gateway LLEN.

Reflections from a former County Court judge

We sat down with former County Court judge Ms Jane Patrick to hear her insights and reflections on the role.

Having studied law in university, Ms Patrick returned to it later in life after an initial career as a teacher.

After working at the Commonwealth Department of Prosecutions and the Equal Opportunity Commission, she practised as a barrister and then served eight years as a magistrate. Ms Patrick was then appointed to the County Court, where she served for ten years, until 2018. There she dealt with criminal cases, a large percentage of which involved sexual offending against children and significant violence.

“You cope by being objective about it, because that’s what your job is… as a judge you have to protect yourself by distancing yourself from the subject matter.”

Ms Patrick outlined the challenges of the role, including dealing with difficult material and the pressure of figuring out the right sentence, but emphasised that despite this, the role was very rewarding. “It’s never boring, it’s about people.”

You can learn more about the roles that make up Victoria’s Legal System in our free publication. Place an order or download the PDF.