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Annual Report 2014 - 2015

Meeting the needs of vulnerable clients

Legal Aid NSW clients are among the most disadvantaged members of the community, experiencing deep and persistent disadvantage.

Legal Aid NSW assists highly disadvantaged clients through early intervention programs, alternative dispute resolution and collaborative partnerships with other agencies. Where relevant, these actions are aligned to government reforms.

OBJECTIVE: Access to justice

Safe Home for Life reforms - early assistance for families in crisis

New projects were launched to provide early assistance to families in contact with the care and protection system - an outcome of the Safe Home for Life reforms to the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 that commenced in October 2014. Legal Aid NSW received New South Wales State Government funding over four years to assist with the permanent placement of children and to implement early intervention and alternative dispute resolution initiatives in line with the new legislation.

Legal Aid NSW has partnered with Community Legal Centres and the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) to provide a network of services across New South Wales for families needing urgent or early intervention care and protection advice.

Our response has included:

  • introducing a new lawyer-assisted alternative dispute resolution service;
  • extending grants of aid for legal representation for children - and to adults in cases of significant disadvantage - for contact disputes; and
  • advising and representing parents and children on parent capacity orders, parent responsibility contracts and permanent placement principles.

Case study

Parenting contract helps family stay together

A sole parent in regional New South Wales has a number of young children in her care. She and the children had experienced family violence. The Department of Family and Community Services requested that she enter into a Parent Responsibility Contract (PRC). We led negotiations with the Department and the mother then entered into a PRC which addressed their child protection issues. With our assistance the mother was able to articulate her strengths as a parent and was provided with appropriate support from the Department to parent more effectively. The family remained together.

Aboriginal people, multiple disadvantage and response to legal problems

The NSW Law and Justice Foundation's Legal Australia-Wide Survey (LAW Survey) demonstrated that Aboriginal people were more likely to have multiple legal problems such as government, health and rights problems.

The research also shows that many Aboriginal people tend to be uncomfortable approaching legal services and are more receptive to assistance in familiar surroundings. For that reason, we adopted a number of strategies to build stronger relationships with Aboriginal communities.

Regular outreach advice clinics for Aboriginal communities rose from 31 to 34 locations. Nineteen per cent of the 53 Cooperative Legal Service Delivery Program projects were delivered in Aboriginal communities.Almost 14 per cent of advice services in Work and Development Orders and fines matters were delivered to Aboriginal people, compared with 8.6 per cent last year.

A new service helping Aboriginal people with everyday legal problems (see below) is quickly expanding its reach across the state and is expected to have a big impact in the next year.

It is likely these initiatives contributed to an increase in the number of Aboriginal clients receiving case grants and duty services from 10.2 per cent last year to 11.3 per cent this year.

Our Legal Aid NSW Plan and Reconciliation Action Plan contain a number of actions to help bridge the gap between Aboriginal communities and our services. Legal Aid NSW developed its second Reconciliation Action Plan for 2015-2018. The plan includes cultural awareness targets for both inhouse staff and private lawyers, recruitment and retention targets and procurement targets. Approved by Reconciliation Australia, this plan has longer-term strategies and well-defined achievable targets.

New service assists Aboriginal people with everyday legal problems

The very successful Money Counts Program, where lawyers worked in targeted Aboriginal communities to assist clients with high levels of fines, was expanded to provide assistance with consumer law, housing and social security problems. Our Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities provided services in Lake Cargelligo, Condobolin, Dareton, Taree and Mt Druitt, and is consulting with Aboriginal communities in Bourke, Brewarrina, Tweed Heads, Moree and communities between Grafton and Ballina with a view to expanding into these locations. In 2014-2015, the service provided 2,262 minor assistance and advice services to almost 400 clients.

Unsuitable consumer contracts, especially household rental contracts and funeral insurance products are commonplace in disadvantaged Aboriginal communities. Legal Aid NSW assisted 150 clients in disputes concerning household rental contracts, working effectively with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to identify and take action against unconscionable conduct, and recovering close to $150,000 for our clients.

Teaming up with the Energy and Water Ombudsman, we were able to identify unscrupulous energy providers and to negotiate appropriate payment plans for families with large electricity bills.

Aboriginal Field Officers-bringing legal services within reach of Aboriginal communities

Aboriginal Field Officers are funded by Legal Aid NSW to provide practical services on the ground, deliver training and community legal education, and liaise with Aboriginal communities.

There are three Aboriginal Field Officers - two are located at Aboriginal Legal Service offices in Walgett and Coffs Harbour and one at the Nowra Legal Aid NSW office.

An external review carried out in 2013-2014 found this service to be a resounding success in helping to expand services to Aboriginal communities in civil and family law, strengthening links with Aboriginal communities, and reducing barriers between Legal Aid NSW services and Aboriginal communities.

In 2014-2015, the Aboriginal Field Officers provided 130 community legal education sessions, 162 civil and family law minor assistance services and 114 referrals to other agencies-35 per cent of these referrals were to Legal Aid NSW.

OBJECTIVE: Excellence in legal services

Reviewing prisoner sentences after High Court finds judicial error

This year brought to a close an intensive four-year review of some 1,000 cases to identify those prisoners sentenced after 2003 who might have been able to apply for a sentence reduction following the 2011 High Court decision in Muldrock v The Queen [2011] HCA 39, which found an error in sentencing.

Legal Aid NSW was tasked with undertaking this review in 2012 in conjunction with the Public Defenders and members of the private bar.

During March and April 2015, 12 Project Muldrock appeals were heard in the Court of Criminal Appeal.Judgment has been published in 11 of these. Eight were granted an extension of time and the sentence reduced. The Crown ultimately conceded Muldrock error in each of these matters.

In her decision in Davis v R [2015] NSWCCA 90, Her Honour Justice Simpson observed the processes undertaken by Legal Aid NSW following delivery of the judgment in Muldrock and remarked:

"The aim of Legal Aid was to resolve the issues as efficiently, economically, and expeditiously as possible... it (is) patently clear that Legal Aid has assiduously attempted to deal with the logistical issues posed as a result of the decision in Muldrock." (at [70]-[72]).

OBJECTIVE: Strong partnerships

Improving safety for victims of domestic violence

Legal Aid NSW is taking a lead role in implementing It Stops Here: Safer Pathway, part of New South Wales Government domestic violence reforms. The reforms are a catalyst for a new coordinated approach to supporting women and children experiencing domestic violence.

Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services host Local Coordination Points under Safer Pathway. Local Coordination Points provide victims with threat assessment and case coordination. People who are identified as being at serious threat are referred to safety action meetings which aim to lessen or prevent serious threats to a victim's life, health or safety through targeted information sharing between key government and non-government agencies and the development of safety action plans. See case study below.

Since opening in September 2014, Orange Local Coordination Point has received 1,180 referrals and Waverley Local Coordination Point has received 2,056 referrals. Safety action plans for women deemed to be at serious threat were developed for 329 and 334 women respectively at Orange and Waverley safety action meetings. Women assessed as not under serious threat were provided with information and case coordination, including warm referrals to a range of service providers for their ongoing needs.

The New South Wales Government has announced the further roll out of Safer Pathway to Bankstown, Parramatta, Broken Hill and Tweed Heads in 2015-2016.

Read more about our domestic violence services and new collaborative partnerships in the section Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Program (WDVCAP).

Case study

New strategy reduces threat to safety

Annie was assessed as being at serious threat by police because her partner had assaulted her with weapons, choked or strangled her and threatened to kill her.

The Local Coordination Point quickly made several referrals. Housing NSW changed Annie's locks within four hours of referral and then offered her a new home some distance from the defendant. Victims Services helped with moving and other costs whilst the Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services supported her at court and obtained an apprehended domestic violence order for her protection.

Annie's case was discussed at the next safety action meeting. Because an order was in place and she was safely relocated and connected to appropriate services, the meeting agreed that the serious threat had been reduced and Annie's case was removed from the agenda.

The year ahead

Implement the Reconciliation Action Plan 2015-2018.

Provide targeted services to Aboriginal communities by expanding civil and family law services to more regional and remote communities.

Receive all referrals of domestic violence incidents involving female victims from the NSW Police Force.

Roll out Safer Pathway to Bankstown, Broken Hill, Parramatta and Tweed Heads.