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Annual Report 2013 - 2014

Chair's report

Legal Aid NSW Chairman, Craig SmithOn behalf of the Board I am pleased to introduce the 2013–2014 Annual Report.

This is my first full year as Chair of the Board of Legal Aid NSW, and it has been a rewarding and interesting year.

As this report demonstrates, Legal Aid NSW is leading the way in innovative and responsive services to meet the legal needs of socially and economically disadvantaged people in New South Wales.

This year has seen the establishment of two important sub-committees of the Board under section 68 of the Legal Aid Commission Act 1979. The Crime and Grants Sub-Committee covers crime-related funding and policy issues, as well as having a focus on training and development opportunities for private lawyers. The Community Partnerships Sub-Committee advises the Board on funding issues affecting legal assistance services, gaps in services, and legal assistance services to Aboriginal clients and clients in rural, regional and remote New South Wales.

Both of these sub-committees include representatives from our partner organisations, and provide an important mechanism for Legal Aid NSW to work with our partners to ensure the efficient and effective delivery of legal services to the people of New South Wales.

Meeting community needs

Legal Aid NSW is increasingly taking its services out to those in the community who need them most, including Aboriginal people, people who are homeless, and people with a mental illness.

The Board was briefed on an independent review of our outreach services by the Law and Justice Foundation, which showed that we have been successful in increasing access to disadvantaged clients through our outreach services, particularly those in rural and remote New South Wales.

We now provide legal assistance in 194 outreach locations across New South Wales.

The Board was pleased to approve the Legal Aid NSW Disaster Plan, which brings together the experience and knowledge we have gained as a result of our work in assisting the victims of disasters with their legal issues. Legal Aid NSW is the key legal agency in coordinating and responding to disasters in New South Wales and I would like to congratulate Legal Aid NSW staff on their important work at Disaster Recovery Centres.

"Legal Aid NSW is increasingly taking its services out to those in the community who need them most."

Delivering effective services

Ensuring that we deliver our services efficiently and effectively is a high priority for the Board.

Legal Aid NSW has carried out a number of reviews of our services, including reviews of the Regional Outreach Clinic Program, the Cooperative Legal Service Delivery Program and the Aboriginal Field Officer project. These reviews allow us to critically assess the effectiveness of our programs and to make adjustments accordingly.

Following a national review of Independent Children’s Lawyer services, Legal Aid NSW is working with other legal aid commissions to implement a number of measures to improve Independent Children’s Lawyer services. These include improved training and resources for Independent Children’s Lawyers, improved communication with parents and children, and high level engagement with courts.

The Board has been provided with regular updates on a proposed pilot of activity based costing at Legal Aid NSW. The aim of this pilot is to provide data to improve service planning and to demonstrate the value of Legal Aid New South Wales services. The pilot will commence on 8 September 2014.

Responding to funding pressures

This year saw a further round of efficiency and other savings from the New South Wales Government which required the Board to make some difficult decisions.

The most significant of these was a policy change to restrict the availability of aid for Local Court defended hearings to cases where there is a real possibility a conviction would result in a term of imprisonment. However, aid will still be available in these cases if there are exceptional circumstances.

This policy was introduced in November 2013. The Board has reviewed the effect of this policy change, and, following some small changes, has determined to continue the policy for a further 12 months.

The collection of client contributions and recovery of costs was a priority under the Legal Aid NSW Plan 2013–2014. This reduces the pressure to cut our services or reduce eligibility for legal aid for those who need it most. The Board approved changes to our Contribution Policy to improve consistency and fairness in how the policy is applied.

Managing risk

An important function of the Board is to oversee audit and risk for Legal Aid NSW.

A number of internal audits were completed this financial year, including compliance with the Public Authorities (Financial Arrangements) Act 1987, work health and safety, management reporting effectiveness, allocation of legal aid work and a review of the CASES system. The Board will oversee the implementation of recommendations arising from these audits.

An internal audit of our complaints handling system by KPMG has resulted in the appointment of a Complaints and Client Services Officer, who is revising Legal Aid NSW complaints policies and processes to improve coordination and consistency in how we deal with complaints.

I am delighted to report that there has been a further decrease in the number of new workers compensation claims reported in 2013–2014. I was particularly pleased to see that there has been a decrease in psychological injuries from five in 2012–2013 to two in 2013–2014. This reflects the excellent work that Legal Aid NSW is doing to improve the health and wellbeing of its staff.

The year ahead

A new Legal Aid NSW plan will guide the work of Legal Aid NSW in 2014-2015. An important focus of the plan is to provide early intervention for vulnerable people, including children, domestic violence victims, Aboriginal communities and disadvantaged rural communities.

Legal Aid NSW will continue to improve its services to Aboriginal people by developing a new Reconciliation Action Plan, implementing an Aboriginal Employment and Career Development Strategy, and reviewing the Statement of Commitment with the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Ltd.

I am pleased to report that the Board approved an increase to the means test threshold, which will come into effect in August 2014. This is the first increase since 2007 and goes a small way to addressing the justice gap for the large numbers of people in the community who cannot afford a lawyer but are not eligible for legal aid.

Legal Aid NSW has a strong Board of Directors, whom I am proud to lead as Chair. I would like to welcome Dr Peggy Dwyer, who was appointed to the Board by the Attorney as the Bar Association representative in 2013. Together, the members of the Board bring an invaluable mix of skills and experience to the organisation.

I thank the Legal Aid NSW Executive team and the staff for their dedication and commitment to delivering legal services to the people of New South Wales. I also acknowledge the work of the private profession and the commitment of the Public Defenders in the provision of legal aid services.

Craig Smith
Chair, Legal Aid NSW