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Annual Report 2011 - 2012

Partnership with private lawyers

Legal Aid NSW works in partnership with private lawyers, who receive funding from Legal Aid NSW to represent legally aided clients in assigned matters. In 2011–2012, private lawyers provided 42.5% of our case and duty services. More details by practice area appear in Appendix 7.

The Grants Division of Legal Aid NSW (Grants) receives, determines and manages legal aid applications from private lawyers and the Legal Aid NSW inhouse practice. Applications are submitted and managed electronically, and there is regular telephone contact with lawyers and clients.

Fact file
Total staff: 76
Applications for legal aid received: 47,443
- criminal law 26,856
- family law 17,603
- civil law 2,984
Appointments on 12 panels 3,918
42.5% of all legally aided case and duty services were provided by private lawyers

Major achievements

Priority: Access to justice

Private lawyers provided advice services in 14 highly disadvantaged regional, rural and remote towns across New South Wales under the Regional Outreach Clinic Program (see Training and resourcing our partners).

The Domestic Violence Practitioner Service operates at 32 Local Courts, involving 68 private lawyers, ensuring clients have effective access to legal services. This year, 4,375 clients were assisted compared with 3,863 last year, a 13% increase.

Private lawyer appointments on panels 2011-2012

Lawyer panels

Private lawyers doing legal aid work are members of panels. Panels operate in all areas of law, including general panels in criminal, family and civil law. There are specialist panels for care and protection, independent children’s lawyers, serious criminal law, children’s criminal law, prisoners legal service, mental health advocacy, veterans’ law and domestic violence matters and for barristers briefed in complex criminal matters.

Major achievements

Priority: Access to justice

We made 458 more appointments to our panels, bringing the total number of appointments on all panels to 3,918, which is 13% more than last year. We have panel lawyers practising in the Sydney metropolitan area and throughout regional New South Wales, which ensures that Legal Aid NSW is able to deliver legal aid services to clients appearing at courts throughout the state.

The Specialist Barrister Panel for Complex Criminal Law Matters began operating in October 2011. The 69 barristers appointed to the panel are eligible to be briefed in legally aided complex criminal matters in the District and Supreme Courts.

A new Grants Online application form and new grants processes were introduced in conjunction with the establishment of the barrister panel. The operation of the panel will be reviewed after 12 months, as agreed with the NSW Bar Association.

A second Specialist Barrister Panel for Criminal Appellate Matters opened for applications in April 2012. It will become operational during 2012–2013. Barristers appointed to this panel will be eligible to be briefed in legally aided criminal appellate matters in the Court of Criminal Appeal and the High Court.

Lawyer appointments on panels 5 year trend

Panel documentation

With the renewal of panel memberships due on five panels, we revised the panel service agreement, practice standards and information for panel applicants. The documents now provide better information about requirements for both new and renewing applicants when seeking appointment and once appointed to a panel.

We improved the information about panels and audit on the new Legal Aid NSW website. Information about the panels process is available in the For Lawyers section of the website, including how to apply for appointment, specialist barrister panels, audit and practice standards.

Maintaining professional standards

The audit strategy assists in monitoring panel lawyers’ adherence to the Legal Aid NSW Panel Service Provision Agreements, which require compliance with our practice standards and policies and guidelines.

The General Criminal Law and General Family Law Panels were the focus for 2011–2012 audits. Approximately 160 files were audited and approximately 180 matters spotchecked. The two most common findings were a lack of financial documents being retained on behalf of the client, and insufficient records of court attendance times. We are addressing breaches of this nature through education and by providing feedback to panel lawyers at the conclusion of their audit.

Backup duty work in metropolitan Sydney

Expressions of interest were sought from members of the General Crime panel to participate in the duty scheme in courts in metropolitan Sydney, which are serviced by the inhouse practice. Members of the scheme will be eligible to be allocated backup duty work and urgent case work at metropolitan courts. Lawyers were asked to demonstrate that they could provide a responsive service. The scheme will replace existing local ‘lists’ for allocation of this work and will begin in 2012–2013.

Priority: Excellence in legal services

Fees increase

After a review last year, the base hourly rate for fees paid to private lawyers in Commonwealth Legal Aid matters was increased to $140, effective from 4 April 2012.

Monitoring service agreements

The Monitoring Committee for apparent breaches of panel service agreements made recommendations about five panel lawyers. The committee recommended that two be removed from the five panels for breach of agreements.

Updated guidelines

We published updated Grants Allocation Guidelines in October 2011. The new guidelines refer specifically to online work offers to panel lawyers, clarify how a client’s practitioner of choice is determined and clarify the discretion available to assign a matter to a particular panel or non-panel lawyer. The guidelines also specify the situations where it is appropriate to assign a matter to a community legal centre.

The Elodgement Guidelines were replaced by the updated Terms and Conditions of use of Grants Online, which tightened up requirements around password security and clarified record keeping requirements and responsibilities for updating firm details.

Priority: Linking services

The Grants Division, in partnership with the inhouse civil law practice and the Public Interest Law Clearing House, implemented a streamlined process for receipt and determination of applications from offshore asylum seekers. The process ensures that critical time limitations are not compromised and limited Legal Aid NSW funds are spent in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. One hundred and sixty-one applicants were assisted through this model in the last financial year.

Planning ahead

Year ahead

Develop a training and information package for private lawyers to enhance their ability to deliver services to legal aid clients.

Review the effectiveness of the panels system, including the audit program and service agreements.

Develop a new system for panel management including new online application forms for panel applicants.

Finalise the specialist barristers’ panel for criminal appellate matters.

Key challenge

Finding ways to improve the quality of our legal services and our relationship with the private profession in a tight financial environment.