Before the 1960s the term 'legal aid' referred to any free legal work conducted by a private legal practitioner, though it now describes government-funded legal assistance for people on low incomes. During the 1960s the Victorian Government operated a scant legal aid service through two agencies: the Office of the Public Solicitor and the Legal Aid Committee. These agencies were mostly only able to assist in the representation of people who had been charged with serious offences.
The first broad-based legal aid system was established in Victoria from 1973 by the Whitlam federal government, and in 1974 the first new Victorian branch of the Australian Legal Aid Office was opened in Sunshine. This came after the establishment of several volunteer-run Community Legal Centres in Victoria, which had alerted governments to the inaccessibility of the law to people on low incomes. The Australian Legal Aid Office paid the private legal costs incurred by approved clients, and it employed in-house lawyers, who solely did legal aid work. Gradually the provision of funds to private practitioners became the standard way in which legal aid money was applied.
From the late 1970s responsibility for legal aid was handed from the federal government back to the States (though Commonwealth funds were still applied), and the Legal Aid Commission of Victoria (later Victoria Legal Aid) opened its first Melbourne office in 1981. While civil rights activists continue to criticise the general level of legal aid funding, recent years have seen increasingly acrimonious arguments between Commonwealth and State governments about their own relative financial contributions towards legal aid costs, raising once again the question of who ultimately is responsible for the provision of legal aid.