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Annual Report 2013 - 2014

CEO's report

Legal Aid NSW CEO, Bill GrantI am pleased to present the Legal Aid NSW 2013–2014 Annual Report.

The report reflects the dynamic and varied way that we go about delivering on our charter to provide legal services to socially and economically disadvantaged people in New South Wales.

It has been a record breaking year, with our total service count exceeding 1,000,000 for the first time. We exceeded the performance benchmarks of the National Partnership Agreement with the Commonwealth Government in all areas, including increasing our early intervention services by 80.6%, and our total services by 32% since 2009–2010. I am delighted with these results and they reflect a lot of hard work by our staff.

Two important reviews, which have the potential to shape our services into the future, took place this year – the Australian Productivity Commission Inquiry into Access to Justice Arrangements and the Review of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services. One of my priorities for the year was to ensure that the excellent work of Legal Aid NSW and our partners in the legal assistance sector in meeting legal need was clearly conveyed to the reviewers.

The review of the National Partnership Agreement recognised our strong performance, noting that we performed strongly against NPA benchmarks and indicators, and that we had comprehensive organisational processes and practices to support quality, efficiency and cost-effective services.

The Productivity Commission referred to Legal Aid NSW services and case studies throughout its draft report, noting that ‘Legal Aid NSW is providing leading practice with its civil law divisions and services'.

Intervening early to prevent problems escalating

Legal Aid NSW has had an increasing focus on early intervention over the past four years. This makes sense, as preventing legal problems from escalating through early intervention and dispute resolution not only results in better outcomes for clients, but also reduces costs.

The Children’s Legal Service has a proud record of working with young people in schools and other settings to alert them to the risks of behaviours which might lead to criminal charges. Following on from the very successful movie BURN, the Children’s Legal Service has developed an entertaining and informative community legal education package on the risks associated with cyberbullying and sexting. This package will be delivered in schools and other locations across New South Wales in the coming year.

I am pleased to note that the Family Law Early Intervention Unit was highly commended in the Government Lawyer Excellence in Legal Services Award. Established in 2011 to provide short, timely interventions to clients who have difficulty accessing traditional legal services in family law, this ground breaking service goes from strength to strength and has now been made permanent.

Our duty and advice services at courts and tribunals provide an essential service in assisting people to negotiate the system and get the best outcomes in their matter. This year we expanded our duty and advice services at the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal and the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, providing invaluable assistance in consumer, discrimination and social security matters.

Similarly, our mediation services ensure that fewer matters go through the expensive and difficult court process. An innovative Legal Aid NSW mediation program at the Family Law Courts in Parramatta and Sydney provides the opportunity for courts to refer parties to mediation after their matter has reached court. In 2013–2014, the program resulted in full or partial settlement for over 90% of matters. This saved an estimated 389 court days and 647 legal aid funded days.

Reaching out to Aboriginal people

Increasing access to our services by Aboriginal people, particularly in civil and family law, is a high priority for Legal Aid NSW.

There are a number of excellent initiatives outlined in this report which demonstrate important progress in this area.

Following the launch of the Reconciliation Action Plan in 2013, I am delighted that we have established a network of Reconciliation Champions to promote the principles of reconciliation within the organisation. With 5.7% of our staff being Aboriginal, I am pleased to note that we are well above the NSW government benchmark of 2.6% Aboriginal staff.

We have introduced a number of services targeted at Aboriginal people, including Money Counts, Aboriginal Women Leaving Custody, Aboriginal Field Officers, and outreach assistance services based in Aboriginal community organisations.

Our Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) services have become more culturally appropriate for Aboriginal clients through the provision of awareness training for FDR practitioners and the appointment of Aboriginal staff. We have also provided Aboriginal cultural awareness training to private lawyers doing legal aid work.

These initiatives are making a difference, with over 10% of Legal Aid NSW clients who received a grant of aid or inhouse duty service in 2013–2014 being Aboriginal, compared with less than 4% in 2002, the year we commenced our focus on Aboriginal services.

Working with our partners

Legal Aid NSW cannot do our work effectively in isolation. Our partners are integral to how we do our business, and range from private lawyers to community legal centres, courts and government departments. This report provides numerous examples of strong partnerships.

Private lawyers are central to how we deliver our services under the mixed model of service delivery.

I am pleased to report that we increased the number of lawyers on panels to 4,562, which is an increase of 6% on last year, and almost double the number in 2008–2009.

We provided training on the new Bail Act 2013 for over 600 lawyers in 21 locations to make sure that criminal defence lawyers across New South Wales understood the new laws.

In an excellent example of an effective partnership, we worked closely with the Police, Department of Justice and the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Ltd to develop a new 'protected admissions' procedure which will allow young, first time offenders to make admissions to police without their confessions being used as evidence against them in court. The scheme aims to increase the number of cautions given and remove the need to go to court. Collaboration between Centrelink and Legal Aid NSW has resulted in the establishment of new legal outreach services based in Centrelink offices in South West Sydney and Maitland. These services will assist clients experiencing financial hardship.

Supporting our staff

Having motivated, well-supported and well-trained staff underpins everything we do.

The Government Sector Employment Act 2013 represents a significant change to how New South Wales government agencies recruit and manage staff. I am pleased to report that we have made good progress in putting processes in place to implement the Act at Legal Aid NSW.

We have also used the introduction of the Act as an opportunity to focus on improving the management skills of our staff. We implemented a suite of online learning modules to provide our managers with practical tools to promote a culture of dignity and respect in their teams.

We continue to take the wellbeing, health and safety of our staff very seriously. We established a Health and Safety Committee. Legal Aid NSW was an inaugural signatory to the new Psychological Wellbeing Guidelines developed by the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation. These offer practical strategies to improve workplace psychological health in areas such as organisational culture, leadership, respect, recognition and rewards, and work-life balance.

This year has seen a concerted effort to improve communication with staff, with the introduction of monthly Table Talk meetings. These provide an opportunity for all staff to discuss important Legal Aid NSW-wide initiatives and to provide feedback through their Executive Director.

"Legal Aid NSW will continue to adopt a rigorous and considered approach to meeting savings targets to ensure minimal impact on our client service delivery."

Meeting State savings targets

Given the difficult funding environment we are in, our financial result for 2013–2014 was outstanding. Legal Aid NSW met its savings targets with minimal impact on legal aid services, few frontline staff cuts and no impact on services in State criminal law, which represents the largest area of legal aid expenditure.

While the operating variance is favourable this financial year, there is a high likelihood that there will be less funding available from the Public Purpose Fund, more State savings targets, and further reductions in Commonwealth funding over the next few years. Legal Aid NSW will continue to adopt a rigorous and considered approach to meeting savings targets to ensure minimal impact on our client service delivery.

I would like to thank the Board of Legal Aid NSW for their strategic leadership over the last year under Chair Craig Smith. I want to thank the Executive team for their support, commitment, vision and hard work over the last year.

Most of all, I would like to thank the staff of Legal Aid NSW and our partners in the private profession, who work tirelessly to assist disadvantaged people in New South Wales to resolve their legal problems.

William Grant
CEO, Legal Aid NSW