Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service calls for support against ‘setbacks and challenges’

‘Our people have faced many setbacks and challenges over the last 235 years, and we have no choice but to continue this struggle every day’

After Australian voters rejected a referendum proposal to enshrine an Indigenous voice to parliament in the national constitution, an Aboriginal justice co-op in Victoria state has called for support for its work.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) provides provides referrals, advice/information, duty work or case work assistance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Victoria. Its solicitors specialise in one of three areas of law: criminal law, family law and civil law.

Its press release issued on Saturday, it said: “VALS is 50 years old. We were established by community, for community.

“We work with Aboriginal Communities to make sure they are listened to, so that decision-makers know what they need and can make positive changes.

“Our people have faced many setbacks and challenges over the last 235 years, and we have no choice but to continue this struggle every day. But our allies do have a choice. We need you to choose to back us at every chance you have.”

The co-op is calling for donations to support services such as:

  • The Wirraway Police and Prison Accountability Practice which supports families of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died in custody to achieve justice for their loved one
  • Baggarrook, its support program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women transitioning out of prison
  • Balit Ngulu, a service which advocates for the voice and rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people who have come into contact with the legal system.

“Our people have never given up – that is why we are the oldest continuous culture on earth,” said CEO Nerita Waight.

“Over 235 years, many things have been taken from us and we have been denied many things. We have experienced so much heartbreak and trauma – but we have always had the strength to continue the struggle for justice.”

“Many people have spoken about wanting to empower Aboriginal communities in recent weeks and months. Those words need to continue to be backed by actions. I ask everyone who wants to support our people to donate to the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and the many other Aboriginal organisations that have been giving voice to our people for many decades.”

Current campaigns by VALS include work for bail reform. The co-op says reforms being made by the state this month “are a step in the right direction” but “fall short of what Aboriginal communities and experts have asked for over many years”.

VALS is a supporter of the Poccum’s Law campaign, which calls for the reversal of toughened bail measures introduced in 2018. The campaign follows the death in custody of Veronica Nelson in 2020, after she was refused bail for shoplifting charges.

The Poccum’s Law campaign – named after the nickname for Veronica by her mother, Aunty Donna Nelson – calls for:

  • removing the presumption against bail,
  • granting access to bail unless there is a specific and immediate safety risk, a serious risk of interfering with a witness, or a real risk that the person will flee the jurisdiction,
  • removing all bail offences, and
  • ensuring that a person is not remanded if they are unlikely to receive a sentence of imprisonment.

In a press release earlier this month, VALS said: “While the bill and the amendments reported by the media do not go far enough to implement Poccum’s Law, it is positive that Victoria is finally implementing bail reform after a decade of punitive law changes that have destroyed lives, families and communities.

“These reforms are happening because of the strength of Veronica Nelson’s family and Aboriginal Communities across Victoria.

“VALS is pleased that the Victorian Government has agreed to a statutory review. This will be an opportunity for them to fully implement Poccum’s Law and ensure that what happened to Veronica never happens again.”

The co-op said it is “well placed to work with the Victorian government on the implementation and oversight of these reforms”, adding that the bail system has problems of “poor implementation, oversight and lack of accountability”.

In particular, VALS says that children should not be held to the same standards as adults when bail is being decided, and wants the presumption against bail for children to be removed entirely.

“It should not be underestimated that the bail bill in Parliament will make bail decisions fairer,” said Waight, “particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – and that is all thanks to the staunch advocacy of Veronica Nelson’s family.

“After a decade of regressive and punitive bail laws implemented by both major parties, Aunty Donna and Uncle Percy have reversed the instinct of Victoria’s politicians to create bail laws that target marginalised people rather than creating strong communities.

“While we celebrate the achievements of Veronica’s family, we know there is a lot more work to do. It is vital that these laws are implemented properly and that Victoria Police and the courts follow the intent of the reforms. We must not have more informal policies and bad decision-making that undermines the reforms.

“VALS has always argued for the complete removal of the reverse onus provisions and for less onerous bail tests for children. We urge the Victorian government to listen to our voice, accept our recommendations, and ensure the Bail Act is not trapping children in the legal system.”