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Annual Report 2011 - 2012

Delivering legal services to disadvantaged communities

We are using new ways to reach our most disadvantaged clients and those at greatest risk of being socially excluded.

Our mandate is to assist disadvantaged people and communities to understand and protect their legal rights through advice, advocacy, representation and education. The people we help generally have multiple layers of disadvantage, which, in many instances go back to childhood. Our challenge is to understand the nature of their disadvantage, to work collaboratively with other agencies on a holistic response and to intervene before legal problems escalate. The aim is to prevent crime or keep people out of court. Research shows that intervening early in a legal dispute can prevent problems from escalating and has significant long-term benefits for the whole community. This early intervention approach has been taken up enthusiastically by our lawyers.

Major achievements

Priority: Access to justice

Fixing fines debt

As fines debt can impact significantly on people’s lives, we launched a Work and Development Order (WDO) Service in four locations across the State – the Mid North Coast, Central West, West/ South Western Sydney and the Illawarra. Locations were decided on the basis of comprehensive mapping of need undertaken by the Department of Attorney General and Justice using aggregated data from the State Debt Recovery Office and Australian Bureau of Statistics. The Service assists clients to clear fines debt through unpaid work, courses or treatment with an approved sponsor organisation, such as a health or youth service. In expanding the service we also aimed to increase the number of sponsors with the release of the DVD – Work and Development Orders: Breaking the cycle of debt, which can be viewed on YouTube. Established in October 2011, the service commenced full operation in January 2012. In its first six months of operation the service has exceeded expectations, producing tangible benefits for people in regional areas with unpaid fines and community organisations.

Fix Your Fines clinic

Lawyers Katie Ho, Pia Birac and Nadia Rosenman at the Broken Hill Centre for Community where Legal Aid NSW held its first Fix your Fines free advice clinic.

The Service conducted 441 community legal education sessions, and provided 458 legal advice and minor assistance services to clients and organisations. Aboriginal Field Officers in the WDO Service contacted more than 160 organisations.

This intense activity resulted in an increase in WDO-approved organisations. As at 30 June 2012, there were 626 organisations approved to sponsor WDOs.

To capitalise on this, Legal Aid NSW launched an intensive Fix Your Fines campaign throughout regional New South Wales. Evidence-based mapping of need was used to plan the days. Lawyers assisted clients to engage with the State Debt Recovery Office to apply for fine write-offs, time-to-pay arrangements and make referrals to the WDO Service.

In total, 21 Fines Days were held across New South Wales between April and June, assisting 307 clients from Broken Hill, Wilcannia, Menindee, Bourke, Brewarrina, Walget, Taree, Kempsey, Lightning Ridge, Taree, Purfleet, Nambucca and Bowraville.

New challenges, more clients for our criminal lawyers

National events and decisions made a significant impact on our criminal law practice in 2011–2012. These saw Legal Aid NSW establish new specialist units to better handle an increased workload following the transfer of people charged with people smuggling offences to New South Wales for prosecution, and a High Court decision – the Muldrock decision – on offences involving a standard non-parole period.

Our clients who have been charged with people smuggling are severely disadvantaged. They have very limited education and speak little or no English yet they face mandatory gaol terms if found guilty.

In 2011–2012, Legal Aid NSW granted aid to 17 Indonesian men charged with aggravated people smuggling. Since late 2010 when we commenced this work, we have granted aid to 112 Indonesian men. This year, over 35 matters have been listed for trial involving more than 65 defendants. Thirty defendants were acquitted and the jury was hung in regard to a significant number. A number of prosecutions were withdrawn after the defendants were found to be under 18 at the time of the alleged offence.

In addition to conducting these matters, the Commonwealth Crime Unit has trained private lawyers doing this work, made submissions for law reform and challenged assumptions about the accuracy of expert evidence in relation to client age.

Legal Aid NSW has developed an early response to the decision of Muldrock v The Queen [2011] HCA 39, 5 October 2011, which found that NSW courts had been incorrectly interpreting the law since 2004 in cases involving a standard non-parole period. The decision meant that there were people still in gaol whose sentences could be incorrect. As this sentencing error has impacts for our most marginalised clients, Legal Aid NSW acted quickly to set up a Muldrock Review Team to conduct a systematic review of about 1,000 cases.

The unit will operate for 12 months.

Help for all parties to domestic violence

Domestic and family violence damages victims and perpetrators alike, often for life.

Women and children experiencing domestic violence can be supported by one of 28 Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services, for which Legal Aid NSW administers funding. The services, which assist women to obtain Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders, cover 108 Local Courts. They provided 76,665 services to 27,565 clients across New South Wales (a 3.2% increase on last year and an 86% increase since the 2009 expansion).

More details about the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Program appear later in this report (see Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Program and Appendix 5).

Specialist private lawyers working in our Domestic Violence Practitioner Service at 32 courts across the state helped women and children experiencing domestic violence gain legal protection through an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order. See Domestic Violence Practitioner Service for their achievements.

As an early intervention strategy, Legal Aid NSW is trialling advice and duty assistance to defendants in Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (ADVO) matters to test whether this approach reduces future legal problems. The need for such intervention was noted in the NSW Domestic and Family Violence Action Plan, a strategy for government, non-government and community organisations to work together better to both prevent domestic and family violence and respond more effectively when it happens.

This pilot at Mt Druitt Local Court, which is still underway, involves a Legal Aid NSW lawyer providing legal advice and minor assistance to defendants to gain more workable orders and, potentially, reduce breaches. See Domestic violence for outcomes.

A senior lawyer position was established to coordinate a crosspractice, whole-of-organisation approach to domestic and family violence. The position will ensure effective use of funding for domestic violence matters, build best practice across the organisation in the provision of services to victims and defendants, review Legal Aid NSW policies and guidelines, and provide professional support and expertise to lawyers.

Legal Aid NSW is leading other public sector agencies by providing domestic violence and family law training for all legal and non-legal staff, developed with the Education Centre Against Violence. It is our aim that our staff complete this workshop over the next two years.

Bridging the distance

Legal Aid NSW understands that, even in the digital age, distance affects access to justice for people living in regional, rural and remote New South Wales. While we cannot feasibly maintain Legal Aid offices in some of these areas, we can still reach out to people in other ways.

One of our innovative initiatives is the Regional Outreach Clinic Program (ROCP), which funds private and Community Legal Centre lawyers to deliver clinics in 14 locations without Legal Aid NSW services. These locations were chosen on the basis of their socio-economic disadvantage and relative lack of access to public legal services.

In 2011–2012, 674 advice services were provided through 127 clinics in the 14 locations.

The regionally-based Cooperative Legal Service Delivery (CLSD) Program aims to improve access to legal services in regional New South Wales. It does this by building cooperative partnerships of public legal sector, pro bono, community and human service providers who assist disadvantaged client groups in their regions.

In 2011–2012, the Program expanded to two more regions on the Mid North Coast, taking the total number of CLSD partnerships to 11.

More information about these regional programs appears in Regional partnerships.

Aboriginal communities

The percentage of services delivered to Aboriginal clients increased from 7.4% to 10.2% over five years.

Aboriginal people, especially those living in regional, rural and remote areas, have particular needs that demand a flexible and culturally appropriate response. The regional programs mentioned previously made a major contribution towards meeting their needs.

Twenty six per cent of CLSD projects in progress or completed during 2011– 2012 were targeted towards meeting the needs of Aboriginal communities in regional New South Wales, whilst 27% of the ROCP services were to Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal inhouse duty services 5 year trend graph

Legal Aid NSW has taken on board the recommendations regarding our services in the University of NSW report, Civil and Family Law Needs of Aboriginal people in New South Wales. Among these was the appointment of Aboriginal Field Officers.

In 2011–2012, we appointed Aboriginal Field Officers to new positions in Walgett and Coffs Harbour. They are located in Aboriginal Legal Service offices with funding provided by Legal Aid NSW. The positions are designed to help local Aboriginal people experiencing problems with debt, fines, violence and family law matters, some of the legal issues identified in the above report.

Together with a colleague appointed at our Campbelltown office the previous year, this completes the Aboriginal Field Officer Pilot Project, which will be evaluated in 2013. These officers are playing a key part in a web conferencing trial, run with the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ ACT to make it easier for Aboriginal people to obtain civil and family law advice and minor assistance. See Web conferencing trial for details.

Aboriginal Field Officer web conferencing

Aboriginal Field Officer Harmoni Dennis uses web conferencing technology to connect a client in far Western NSW with their Legal Aid NSW lawyer based in Central Sydney.

Planning ahead

Year ahead

Increase the number of advice and minor assistance services in civil and family law to Aboriginal people in regional and rural areas by up to 10%.

Evaluate our domestic violence programs and increase training for lawyers.

Trial web conferencing with Aboriginal Field Officers to evaluate its effectiveness in assisting hard-toreach communities.

Assist more people in long-term financial hardship to reduce their debts.

Complete the review of the sentences of all eligible serving prisoners whose sentences involved a standard nonparole period.

Coordinate our regional and outreach services so that clients have more regular access to legal services.

Key challenge

Finding new ways to reach our most disadvantaged clients and those at greatest risk of being socially excluded. Our lawyers will employ early intervention strategies, working in partnership with private lawyers and government and community agencies to prevent people’s problems from escalating.