Former Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service employees are blaming the toxic culture for funding cuts.
The service, which according to The Australian imposed a freeze on new criminal law matters last month, faces further cuts to services likely to be announced this week.
Former staff are blaming the chronic mismanagement for the organisation’s high staff turnover, with more than 50 people having left the organisation, including seven senior lawyers (of 50 employees in total) in the last three years.
The Australian spoke to six former employees independently and on a condition of anonymity, who accused the organisation of failing disadvantaged members of the Victorian indigenous community and risking deaths in custody.
A table of changes to criminal law services leaked to The Australian indicated a withdrawal of criminal law services from all metropolitan courts. The changes will mean that VALS will only act for clients who are ineligible for Victorian Legal Aid services.
But chief executive Wayne Muir disputed the claims, saying the increase in clients is unmanageable and claimed that the changes were just under consideration with a decision to be announced this week.
“Effectively, what VALS is saying is, ‘we’re not a unique service’,” said one former employee.
“A crucial aspect of their role is providing a culturally appropriate service, particularly to people in or facing custody. The importance of that role was highlighted in the royal commission into deaths in custody, and it’s part of their funding agreement.”
The former employees predicted the changes would mean abandoning representation of people facing serious charges and fewer cases heard in the Koori courts because of the unfamiliarity of the system to many lawyers.
Under the current management, the service has dramatically increased its staff. But possible cuts had been necessitated by VALS reaching 128 per cent of its annual criminal law target a third of the way into this financial year, Muir said.
“Our criminal law section is under pressure,” he said.
“We have criminal lawyers working Saturdays and Sundays and until 10 and 11pm and I’m under legal and financial obligations to reduce their workload and look after their welfare.”
The former employees told The Australian that their workload had always been high, disputing Muir’s claims that the workload had increased recently, and described a bullying culture in the organisation.
Three unfair dismissal claims have been upheld by Fair Work Commission or settled out of court. A further claim of an office manager suffering psychological stress at the organisation will be heard in a Melbourne court this week.
Muir told The Australian that he regarded the organisation’s 100 per cent staff turnover as normal for the sector.