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Annual Report 2014 - 2015

Addressing clients' complex needs

In New South Wales, 23 per cent of people who took part in the NSW Law and Justice Foundation's Legal Australia-Wide Survey, experienced three or more legal problems within a 12-month period.

In addition, some individuals were particularly likely to experience multiple legal problems. In fact, the majority of legal problems were concentrated among a minority of respondents. In New South Wales, nearly 10 per cent of people surveyed accounted for 66 per cent of the legal problems reported.

The research shows that these clients often have multiple social, psychological and physical needs and complex legal problems. They therefore have the greatest need for assistance and are the most challenging to access and engage.

In response to these findings, Legal Aid NSW has adopted an intensive client-centred approach and introduced strategies to reach these clients and break the cycle of disadvantage which can involve health problems, unemployment, loss of income, non-payment of rent, eviction and homelessness.

OBJECTIVE: Access to justice

Addressing legal needs of young people with complex needs

Often young people caught up in the criminal justice system have multiple legal problems that keep them entrenched in disadvantage.

Legal Aid NSW provides a highly targeted, wrap-around legal service - the Children's Civil Law Service - to young people identified as likely to be high users of Legal Aid NSW services. All of these young clients have been identified as having multiple or complex needs, which may include debt, exclusion from school, unpaid fines, no identification documents, no income support or homelessness. A high proportion live in out-of-home care. See case study below.

This year, 146 young people were assisted through this service and a total of 1,218 legal services were provided. This has led to reduced interactions with police, preservation of housing and elimination of debts.

The Service also worked to address systemic issues that are contributing to young people being brought before the criminal justice system (see Improving the child support system).

Case study

Wrap-around service helps young woman rebuild her life

Jay, who is 17, had been placed in the care of the Minister as a result of a childhood history of chronic neglect and isolation, exposure to drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. She had been homeless since the age of 13 and suffered from depression and anxiety.

When Jay called the Legal Aid NSW youth hotline about her criminal law issues, it became obvious that many other legal issues were affecting her, including outstanding fines, victims' compensation and the lack of a care plan. Without the most common of community supports, she was highly vulnerable and at further risk of criminal offending.

Our wrap-around service included advocacy, court support, seeking write-off applications from State Debt Recovery for outstanding fines, legal assistance with her victims' compensation matters, accessing a Centrelink Disability Support Pension, and referrals to other useful services.

Given Jay's vulnerability and isolation, a Legal Aid NSW social worker was assigned to provide ongoing casework and develop a care plan that allows Jay to access entitlements and benefits when she turns 18.

Integrated services fully address our clients' complex needs

The Legal Aid NSW Client Assessment and Referral Service (CARS) is an example of multi-faceted service integration within a single service provider. CARS works collaboratively with lawyers to ensure the best possible outcomes for clients with complex needs. CARS identifies how clients' psychological difficulties impact on their legal problems, provides a psychosocial assessment for court and refers clients to other services for assistance. The assessments disclose the client's history and behavioural issues, and provide options for lawyers and the courts (see case study below). In 2014- 2015, CARS assisted 388 clients and completed 199 psychosocial reports for court. The Service undertook short-term case management for 47 clients with complex needs. The top six psycho-social issues addressed by CARS were mental health, drugs and/or alcohol, financial management orders, cognitive disability, domestic and family violence, and accommodation.

Case study

Client moves on from the effects of domestic violence following fullassessment

A couple with two teenage children had been married for 14 years. The wife experienced daily verbal and emotional abuse, social and financial control and physical violence. Her husband had previously been imprisoned following a serious assault upon her in 2007.

She began to use alcohol as a way to manage her anxiety and the effects of being in a violent and abusive relationship. After an argument about arrangements for the children escalated, she retaliated against her ex-husband and was later charged with common assault at which point she became our client.

CARS prepared a treatment plan which included counselling and medication for her anxiety and a referral to a domestic violence support group. The court report outlined the context of domestic violence and its impact on her mental health. The matter was dealt with under section 32 of the Mental Health (Forensic Provisions) Act 2007 so that no conviction was recorded. Our client received the treatment and support she needed in order to move on from the effects of domestic violence.

OBJECTIVE: Strong partnerships

Secure housing gives Aboriginal women a better chance of rehabilitation

The Aboriginal Women Leaving Custody Project delivered legal assistance to Aboriginal women in custody, an especially vulnerable client group. The service is available to every Aboriginal woman in Silverwater Correctional Centre through weekly clinics. In 2014-2015, we assisted 167 women with 276 legal problems. We provided ongoing case work assistance to help these women with housing and other civil law issues while in custody, such as getting them back on the social housing list where their applications had been incorrectly closed; or assisting them to appeal their Housing NSW classification.

In May 2015, we produced a report into the barriers to housing for Aboriginal women on release from custody and will work with Housing NSW to progress some of the recommendations next year.

Case study

Priority housing for pregnant mother

Dee has been either homeless or imprisoned since 2005. She suffers from depression, anxiety and hepatitis C.

Due to her violent relationship, Dee began using drugs. Her tenancy was terminated for rental arrears. She fled the property with her child and mother, later ending up in prison.

Legal Aid NSW appealed a Housing NSW decision to enforce a debt and to give Dee a negative classification. The negative classification had to be overturned before she could be assessed for secure priority housing.

The appeal was successful and she was eligible to be placed on the list. With the assistance of the support worker, Dee could be approved for priority housing. Dee was offered a property 14 weeks before giving birth.

The year ahead

Work with Housing NSW to find solutions for the issues faced by Aboriginal women leaving custody.

Find new ways of helping clients to break the cycle of disadvantage involving health problems, unemployment, loss of income, non-payment of rent, eviction and homelessness.

Identify and address the multiple issues faced by young people who are high users of legal aid services or at high risk of becoming so.