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Better access for Aboriginal people

Legal Aid NSW employs three Aboriginal Field Officers (Civil and Family Law) to make sure that Aboriginal people have better access to legal services.

Col Skinner is based at the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) offices in Coffs Harbour and Grafton, looking after the Mid North coast region. Harmoni Dennis is based at the ALS office in Walgett and looks after the Far North West. Kelly Smith is based at the Campbelltown Legal Aid NSW office, looking after the local area as well coordinating Aboriginal services down the South Coast to Nowra.

These positions are a direct response to recommendations from an independent report by Professor Chris Cunneen titled The Civil and Family Law Needs of Aboriginal People in NSW. The report highlighted the high level of unmet legal need in civil and family law and provided recommendations for how Legal Aid NSW can improve its services.

Field Officers work with Legal Aid staff to provide services to clients. They can also provide advice to other agencies about communicating better with Aboriginal communities and giving due consideration to local issues.

A field officer's work in action
Grandmother seeks protection for her granddaughter

Aboriginal Field Officer Kelly Smith's client is a grandmother who has cared for her one-year-old grand daughter since birth. She has strong concerns about the child's safety as the 15 and 16-year-old parents have drug and alcohol issues. Both the natural parents had verbally agreed to this arrangement.
 
Kelly helped the grandmother apply for legal aid to start mediation to get legally binding orders in place. She also liaised with Centrelink about financial aid as the mother did not contribute any money from the family payment she was receiving for the child. Kelly also referred her client to the Benevolent Society and The Salvos for assistance with food and other support.
 
The child's mother then made a recovery order for her child and her lawyer called Kelly's client to say the federal police were now involved and she had to give the child back.
 
Kelly advised the distraught grandmother to come in immediately for legal advice. Legal Aid obtained an urgent Affidavit for a stay on the recovery order. The stay was granted so the child can still remain with the grandmother until a hearing date is set.
 
The relieved grandmother said she would not have known what to do as she could not understand what the lawyers were saying and would have lost her granddaughter.

For more information on how to get in touch with Field Officers contact Janelle Clarke at janelle.clarke@legalaid.nsw.gov.au

Photo showing Aboriginal Field Officers

Aboriginal Field Officers l to r: Harmoni Dennis, Col Skinner and Kelly Smith.

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