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Working together to improve access to justice for cross-border communities

1 Mar 2019

The Cross-border justice report, released by Victoria Legal Aid and Legal Aid NSW, outlines how the commissions will improve access to legal assistance along the Victorian/NSW border.

Many border communities experience complex and unique challenges in accessing justice and have a proportionally higher demand for legal services than other parts of Victoria and New South Wales.

Victoria Legal Aid Executive Director, Services and Innovation, Peter Noble said ‘People living, studying and working in cross border communities, such as Albury-Wodonga, are often navigating two different, and sometimes conflicting systems, just to undertake everyday activities. This means it can be extremely complex for people to solve their legal problems and in some cases can lead to unfair legal outcomes.’

‘By working together to support our clients to navigate these different systems we can achieve long-lasting change that will make it easier for people in cross-border communities to resolve their legal issues,' said Peter.

Legal Aid NSW CEO Brendan Thomas said the report was about ensuring that communities on both sides of the border receive the legal assistance that they need.

‘We are keen to work with Victoria Legal Aid, as well as our colleagues in the private profession, who have unique challenges as they represent clients from both sides of the border.

‘These measures are designed to tackle the confusion that sometimes exists when navigating two different legal jurisdictions.

‘It’s about ensuring that no-one in our border community falls through the cracks,’ said Brendan.

This report highlights some of the issues faced by border communities including that:

  • Bail, parole and community corrections orders are imposed with the assumption that clients only travel interstate in exceptional circumstances, meaning there is no flexibility for people who cross the border for work, access support services, or visit family.
  • Clients seeking legal assistance in border communities are at risk of missing out on the help they need because there are inconsistent approaches to client referrals —both between, and external to, legal aid commissions.
  • Cross-border community residents may not be able to access the legal services that are physically closest to them because they are located in the other state.
  • The small number of private practitioners doing legal aid work in some cross-border communities means that it can be difficult for clients to get appropriate legal assistance.
  • Family law matters are not always heard at the court closest to where parents reside. This means parents must often go through additional steps and delays to have their matter heard at an appropriate time and location.
The report makes 14 recommendations to address these issues and create opportunities for both legal aid commissions to improve practices and work together more deliberately. This will lead to better outcomes for clients and legal practitioners in these communities.

Some of the recommendations include:

  • Advocating for bail, parole and other community corrections orders that consider the need for regular interstate travel in border communities.
  • Developing a clear procedure for referring cross-border clients between commissions.
  • Trialling a more flexible approach to applying the legal aid forum test for those living in cross border communities, to enable clients to access legal assistance at a location that suits the clients, regardless of whether they reside in NSW or VIC.
  • Continuing to participate in the review of the family law system to highlight the particular challenges of family law matters for cross-border communities.
  • Trialling a more flexible approach to determining eligibility for Commonwealth family law matters, to allow border residents greater choice in legal practitioners.
  • Working with the Victorian and NSW Cross-Border Commissioners to continue to improve border justice issues.

The report has been developed following extensive consultation with legal aid staff, private practitioners, Aboriginal community legal services, community legal centres and other social and justice staff along the border.

This report and its recommendations are the first step to ensuring that the barriers Victorian and NSW border communities face in accessing legal assistance are recognised and addressed collaboratively by Victoria Legal Aid and Legal Aid NSW.

Download a copy of the report