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Annual Report 2010 - 2011

Priority client groups

Legal Aid NSW has identified four priority client groups and addressed their particular needs through specialist programs and outreach services.

Aboriginal people

Improving legal services to Aboriginal clients is a key responsibility for every staff member of Legal Aid NSW. These responsibilities are guided by the Aboriginal Services Unit, working in alignment with three Corporate Plan priorities – social inclusion, access to justice and integrated services. Service improvement initiatives also responded to recommendations from the Report into the Civil and Family Law Needs of Aboriginal People (University of NSW).

An Aboriginal Justice Committee advises the CEO on Aboriginal justice initiatives. Appendix 13 has membership details.

Percentage of total case and in-house duty services provided to Aboriginal clients - 5 year trend

Major achievements

Priority 1: Social inclusion

Last year, we helped over 1,100 Aboriginal people and their descendants register claims for Stolen Wages. This year, a total of $725,931 was paid to the Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme claimants who were assisted by Legal Aid NSW to make and pursue their claims.

Priority 2: Access to justice

We are committed to making it easier for more Aboriginal people to access our services. Research supports employing Aboriginal staff to act as liaison officers in geographical areas of high need as a way to improve access. As part of a pilot project, we employed our first Aboriginal Field Officer in November 2010 to help Aboriginal people experiencing problems with debt, fines, violence or family law matters. The new position is a joint initiative of Legal Aid NSW and the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT). Based at Campbelltown, but also covering Wollongong to Nowra, the Field Officer facilitates community legal education and outreach programs and also arranges for people to see a lawyer or refers them to other useful services, and provides court support.

Another effective way of reaching Aboriginal communities is to take services out to these communities, to save people travelling long distances to Legal Aid NSW offices. In recognition of this, we expanded our outreach program, conducting legal advice in 12 locations where there is no Legal Aid NSW office.

Using National Partnership Agreement funding, we established monthly advice clinics in 13 of the most disadvantaged towns in New South Wales with large Aboriginal populations. Out of all the clients who attended 93 clinics, 31% were Aboriginal. See Rural and regional outreach programs.

We provided information and advice clinics at major Aboriginal events, including Greater Western Sydney Information and Referral Days at Emerton and Campbelltown, the Goodooga Family Fair Day in remote far western New South Wales where 81% of the population is Aboriginal, the Ella 7’s rugby tournament (Coffs Harbour), the Rugby League Knockout Carnival (Central Coast), and the Yabun Festival (Sydney.)

Our services for Aboriginal people are explained in a new suite of publications using the artwork of Bourke Aboriginal artist Tanya Martin of the Ngemba People.

Aboriginal Field Officer, Kelly Smith helps a client to fill out an application for legal aidAboriginal Field Officer, Kelly Smith (L) helps a client to fill out an application for legal aid, watched on by Janelle Clarke from the Aboriginal Services Unit of Legal Aid NSW.

Planning ahead

Year ahead

Support the Aboriginal Legal Service to employ Aboriginal Field Officers in Coffs Harbour and Walgett, as well as evaluate this pilot project.

Implement a new Aboriginal Services, Employment and Partnerships Plan 2011-2013 to ensure our services meet the needs of Aboriginal people. Use new resources for Aboriginal people to support our growing number of education and community outreach programs.

Key challenge

Reaching Aboriginal communities living in isolated areas poses a very big challenge. Our approach will be to take our services out to a greater number of communities using the skills and contacts of our Aboriginal Field Officers.

Older people

The Older Persons’ Legal and Education Program was established in 2008 and is delivered through a partnership between Legal Aid NSW and the Aged-care Rights Service (TARS) – a specialist community legal centre. The program aims to improve access to legal advice, minor assistance and casework for older people through direct service delivery, and by building the capacity of public legal services to respond to the needs of older people.

This program is a leading example of how integrated services can provide better services for clients, particularly early access to legal assistance through information and community legal education.

Major achievements

Priorities 1 & 2: Social inclusion and Access to justice

Following an independent review in 2009, a Steering Committee comprising representatives of key organisations was established to advise the Program on its future strategic direction and to inform it of new services, initiatives and research. Appendix 13 has membership details. The Steering Committee has focused on initiatives that deliver community legal education and legal services to culturally and linguistically diverse communities, Aboriginal people and people living in regional, rural and remote areas.

Twenty six community legal education sessions were attended by 820 older people and community workers in New South Wales, including older people from multicultural backgrounds. Sessions covered substitute decision making, end-of-life planning, protecting assets and other legal issues.

Our Veterans’ Advocacy Service (VAS) assisted veterans and their dependants claim their rights and entitlements under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. This year, VAS provided increased assistance at the Veterans’ Review Board, including, for the first time in 15 years, representation services. Eighty five one-day advice sessions were held for veterans, mostly in regional areas, servicing clients who do not have access to advice.

Priority 3: Integrated services

The Planning Ahead Project – a collaboration between Legal Aid NSW as lead agency, private lawyers and ‘host services’ such as the Benevolent Society, continued in Hurstville, Gosford and Wagga Wagga as well as expanding to Penrith.

The Legal Pathways Project Pilot – a cross-sectoral partnership between Legal Aid NSW, the Council on the Ageing (NSW) and the Law Society of NSW to increase access of disadvantaged older people to legal services – was established as a 12 month project. The pilot was very successful and funding was provided by Legal Aid NSW to the Council on the Ageing (NSW) for administrative support to continue the project.

Two new brochures were added to a suite of brochures on legal issues for older people. Why make a will? was produced in partnership with the Law Society of NSW, with Legal Aid NSW the lead agency, and is available in Greek, Italian, Arabic, Chinese and Vietnamese. It will be distributed widely by private lawyers participating in a Wills Awareness Day in August 2011 organised by the Elder Law and Succession Committee of the Law Society, of which Legal Aid NSW is a member.

In response to an emerging issue being seen by the Older Persons Legal Unit, They want me to leave: staying in your home when your partner dies, was produced. It is now in its second print run.

The Unit also updated a publication, now called Speaking for myself: planning for later life decision making, in partnership with the Benevolent Society.

Planning ahead

Year ahead

Publish more information on emerging elder law issues, and information on wills for Aboriginal communities.

Increase minor assistance and early intervention services through more outreach programs.

Establish an outreach service for culturally and linguistically diverse communities and Aboriginal older people living in remote areas.

Key challenge

Addressing issues for older people in gaol through closer links with Corrective Services NSW on key issues.

People with a mental illness

The Mental Health Advocacy Service, based in Burwood, provides duty representation for people who appear before the Mental Health Review Tribunal (MHRT) under the Mental Health Act 2007, Mental Health (Forensic Provisions) Act 1990 and NSW Trustee and Guardian Act 2009.

Ten inhouse lawyers represent clients in 20 mental health facilities in metropolitan Sydney, and forensic facilities such as the Forensic Hospital at Malabar, as well as coordinating private lawyers doing duty work before the MHRT throughout New South Wales.

Other areas of expertise include representing people appearing before the Guardianship Tribunal as well as representation in all inquiries associated with the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Act 2007.

The service also provides a telephone information service and runs weekly advice clinics at its office at Burwood and in major mental health facilities.

Major achievements

Priorities 1 & 2: Social inclusion and Access to justice

Over 11,000 duty services were provided through the Mental Health Advocacy Service, with 30% of these provided by the inhouse practice and the balance assigned to private lawyers.

MHAS inhouse lawyers provided 1,902 duty services before the MHRT and gave 1,303 advice sessions.

This was the first full financial year of the new approach to conducting mental health inquiries before the MHRT. Previously mental health inquiries were held by magistrates within the first week to 10 days of a patient’s detention in hospital. Since amendments to the Mental Health Act 2007, commenced in June 2010, inquiries are conducted before the MHRT three to four weeks after a mentally ill person is admitted.

The service responded to the changes by providing weekly advice clinics for newly admitted patients, education sessions for both staff and patients, and publishing Have you been involuntarily admitted to hospital? explaining patients’ rights, including appeal and discharge forms.

During the year a new forensic unit, Macquarie Clinic, was opened at Bloomfield Hospital. This represents a significant improvement in terms of rehabilitation for our forensic clients.

Patients now have the opportunity to move from high security units in the Forensic Hospital at Malabar to the medium security of Bloomfield in preparation for discharge into the community. Lawyers from the MHAS provide representation for Bloomfield forensic patients before the MHRT.

Difficulties in linking services with clients once they leave the hospital system have been a perennial matter for concern as poor, or no services may lead to the deterioration of patients’ mental health and their subsequent hospitalisation. In addition to legal representation, the MHAS provides non-legal advocacy for our clients to assist them in obtaining care and support in the community. This type of advocacy is particularly important for clients who live with more than one disability or whose needs do not easily fit into traditional community support models.

At the request of the Guardianship Tribunal, the MHAS provided lawyers to act as a separate representative for people appearing before the Tribunal. In these cases separate representatives assist the Tribunal by making recommendations they believe are in the best interests of the client. This year Legal Aid NSW granted aid in 309 matters before the Tribunal.

An important feature of the work at MHAS is educating clients, mental health workers and the general community on mental health law. Twenty five community legal education sessions were delivered to government and non-government workers in the mental health system, as well as to consumers and their carers.

Planning ahead

Year ahead

Monitor the situation with regard to community support for clients returning to the community, and work in conjunction with the MHRT and other stakeholders to ensure that our clients have access to appropriate services.

Key challenge

Finding services that meet the individual needs of our clients continues to be a challenge, particularly for those clients with special needs. We will work with the MHRT, service providers and consumers to seek services that ensure clients receive safe and effective care, both in hospital and the community.

Homeless people

As homeless people are at very high risk of being socially excluded, they are a key part of our social inclusion program. Working in partnership with health services is the best way of meeting the needs of these particularly disadvantaged and marginalised clients.

Major achievements

Priorities 1 & 3: Social inclusion and Integrated services

We operated 22 homeless outreach clinics, largely in regional New South Wales, expanding this year into the Richmond/Tweed and South East NSW regions.

Most clinics take place in local health centres as there is clear and compelling evidence of the link between legal and health issues.

Training was conducted for all staff who deal with homeless people, prisoners or people with a mental illness on issues relating to complex legal needs such as guardianship and capacity issues.

A training program was also delivered to community workers, raising awareness of legal issues contributing to homelessness.

Civil lawyers worked together with criminal lawyers on social security prosecutions (see Criminal law - Major achievements).

Homeless Persons' Legal Services lawyer, Sharlene Naismith present cheques to homes and refugesHomeless Persons’ Legal Service lawyer Sharlene Naismith (second from left) and local lawyers present cheques to homes and refuges for homeless men and women. The funds came from fees and sponsorship paid by lawyers who attended a legal seminar in Nowra. Photo: South Coast Register

Planning ahead

Year ahead

Open more outreach clinics in North West New South Wales including Walgett, Tamworth, Wellington, North Eastern New South Wales and South Eastern New South Wales.

Key challenge

Linking with people who are at most disadvantage, particularly in remote areas. Building relationships with local service providers will be vital to successfully making those connections.

Representing our priority clients
Case 1 Older person forced from home

An elderly client transferred her house to relatives for less than market value in return for a life interest in the home. Her relatives encouraged her to sell an investment unit and use the proceeds to improve the granny flat at the back of the house, where she would live. The granny flat was not rebuilt, and her relationship with her family broke down to the point where she was forced to leave her home. The money advanced to the family from the sale of the investment property was not returned either.

Our client sued her family in the Supreme Court. The case was resolved at mediation with our client receiving a suitable financial settlement.

Case 2 Community treatment order too punitive

An Aboriginal client was subject to a community treatment order made by a Magistrate. The order was made for a period of two years, which appeared punitive given the nature of the offence.

On appeal, the Mental Health Review Tribunal’s decision confirmed it has the jurisdictional power to hear such appeals, and that the duration of a community treatment order is determined by how much time it would take to stabilise a person and establish a therapeutic relationship with the treating team. The Tribunal allowed the appeal and confirmed the order for six months.

Case 3 Social housing protection

Our client had received an order terminating her tenancy of an Aboriginal Land Council home in which she and her family had lived for many years. There had been complaints about loud music and occasional arguments.

We filed a re-hearing application in the Consumer Trader and Tenancy Tribunal (CTTT). This was successful and the case was set down for a re-hearing. The Tribunal member decided again to terminate the tenancy.

We appealed to the Supreme Court on the basis that the Tribunal member had failed to take into account relevant considerations relating to social housing under s 64(4) of the Residential Tenancies Act 1987. His Honour agreed with this point and the matter was remitted to the CTTT to be re-determined.

Mediation was arranged between the tenant, the neighbours and the Local Aboriginal Land Council.

This was successful and our client and her family remain in their home.