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Funding dispute erupts over domestic violence service

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South Australia’s peak women’s legal centre has questioned why the State Government rejected its bid to provide a court assistance service to victims of domestic violence, claiming the successful bidder for the $2 million contract didn’t offer the best value for money.

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Attorney-General Vickie Chapman announced last month that the State Government had awarded a four-year contract costing over $2 million to the Legal Services Commission to run the Government’s women’s domestic violence court assistance service.

The program, which was previously run by the Victim Support Service, helps women impacted by domestic violence to apply for intervention orders and end lease agreements.

The announcement followed an open tender process run through the Attorney-General’s Department.

Announcing the Legal Services Commission as the successful applicant in May, Chapman said the tender process ensured “victims and survivors of family and domestic violence can be confident that they will receive the highest quality and most efficient service”.

But the Women’s Legal Service of South Australia has reputed Chapman’s claim, alleging their application offered a cheaper and better quality service.

State Budget papers show the Government will cut funding to the court assistance service by $780,000 over the next four years.

Women’s Legal Service CEO Zita Ngor said department bureaucrats told her that given the impending funding cuts, her tender application offered the best value for money.

Ngor said the Department offered the Legal Services Commission – an organisation part-funded by the State and Federal Governments – a contract for $560,000 per year.

InDaily asked a Government spokesperson to confirm that figure, but the spokesperson said they could not reveal funding details due to commercial confidentiality.

The Women’s Legal Service offered to provide the service for just $360,000 per year – about $200,000 per year less than what Ngor said was the successful bid.

“We did attend a debrief with the Department and essentially we were told that we were the best applicant but unfortunately they would not give us the tender on the basis that they were worried that our staffing model at the figure we gave them was insufficient,” Ngor said.

“The staffing models that we used were based on the current staffing models that Women’s Legal Service has and is actually quite generous for what the Government had requested in their tender document.”

Ngor said the Women’s Legal Service had offered to provide three full-time staff to handle the Government’s request for 120 cases and 680 advices to be dealt with each year.

“It works out to be three advices per day and two and a half representations or matters in court per week, per staff member, which for a team of three is quite sufficient,” she said.

“Based on what they had wanted in their procurement documents, our model is more than ample to meet the need.”

Ngor argued the Women’s Legal Service was best suited to provide the court assistance service as it had proven expertise in dealing with court matters relating to domestic and family violence.

She said the centre would have been able to provide “wraparound legal and non-legal supports for women seeking intervention orders and help in other areas of law including family law and child protection”.

According to the service, in 2017-18, 3000 women sought legal help from the centre, with 62 per cent of those women being survivors of domestic or family violence.

“As an organisation that is recognised for its expertise and has as its core business helping women and their children who are victims of domestic violence, we were surprised by the decision,” Ngor said.

“We have attempted to hold further discussion with the Department but they’ve to date not made any contact, despite us writing them a letter, phoning, emailing, requesting an urgent meeting and a review of the decision.

“The question is whether the State Government is really committed to transparent processes that support women in crisis.”

In a statement to InDaily, Chapman said the Legal Services Commission put forward a “comprehensive” proposal that would see support offered in numerous locations throughout the state, including regional areas.

She said the Commission had a proven track record when it came to providing “high-quality legal advice to vulnerable members of the community”.

“While cost is a factor that is considered in these types of processes, it is not the only factor – and, when it comes to supporting people who are either experiencing, or are at risk of domestic violence – we would not be doing our job properly if we were to consider cost alone,” she said.

“Unsuccessful tenderers always have the opportunity to debrief once the tender process has been completed, to gain a better insight into why the agency chose to go with another provider.

“I understand the invitation for a debrief was extended to all unsuccessful providers and debrief sessions were conducted by the department in the first week of June.”

Chapman said if a provider was still dissatisfied with the result of the tender process, they could write to the nominated complaints officer or the State Procurement Board.

The Legal Services Commission will begin providing the women’s domestic violence court assistance service next month.

The Government expects the service will support 800 victims of domestic violence and family abuse across regional and metropolitan South Australia over the coming years.

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