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Annual Report 2014 - 2015

Policies for our clients

We ensure our policies target those most in need of legal assistance while meeting ongoing funding challenges.

In 2014-2015, Legal Aid NSW amended a number of policies to be able to target our services to those most in need of legal assistance.

OBJECTIVE: Access to justice

Means test thresholds were raised allowing more people to qualify for aid

In June 2015, we made changes to the means test. The new amendments make more appropriate allowance for living expenses, especially for applicants from struggling working families.

Raising the income threshold and allowable assets under the means test narrows the 'justice gap' as more people become eligible for legal aid. We continue to review the means test to spread legal aid as widely as possible.

We published case scenarios on our website to assist lawyers and members of the public to understand how the means test works in practice.

Legal Aid NSW undertook a review of the high-risk offenders policy and the means test changes. As a result of the policy review, legal aid continues to be available for these matters.

Hard decisions made around availability of legal aid

In December 2014, we had to respond to significant cuts to the Expensive Commonwealth Cases Fund for Commonwealth criminal indictable trials such as people smuggling, drug importation, terrorism, child pornography and sex slavery matters. Legal aid was not available for expensive Commonwealth criminal law trials from 12 December 2014 through to 25 February 2015, when the Commonwealth restored funding for expensive cases.

Amendments to the Migration Act 1957 (Cth) in November 2014 raised the need to clarify our policy regarding matters where a person is challenging the cancellation of their permanent visa under s.501 of the Act.

The amendments to the Act resulted in an increase in the number of people seeking legal aid in relation to visa cancellations. The amendment to the policy clarifies that legal aid is only available for representation at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Federal Court in relation to s.501 visa cancellation matters.

New eligibility test and changes to the means test and contributionspolicy and guidelines

We have made changes that will increase our capacity to deliver legal services to a larger number of disadvantaged people across New South Wales.

Under a new eligibility policy, a person may be refused legal aid if they owe a debt to Legal Aid NSW as a result of their failure to pay a required contribution towards the cost of their legal representation. We have also revised the contributions policy and guidelines and introduced new methods of payment to make it easier for clients to pay their contributions, including instalment plans. Staff have discretion to reduce or waive a contribution for clients who have no funds or are unable to access funds.

The most significant change we made is that we now require a person who owns real property to give us a charge over the property to secure the costs of providing the legal service.

Aid became available in more care and protection matters

We introduced new policies in care and protection making legal aid available for contact disputes and guardianship orders. Also, following a successful pilot, legal aid is now available for external care and protection mediation.

OBJECTIVE: Excellence in legal services

Measuring client satisfaction

This year Legal Aid NSW conducted our biennial client satisfaction survey. Over 600 clients who received advice and/or minor assistance at one of our 22 offices were interviewed by an independent company between February and April 2015.

The profile of clients surveyed included eight per cent who were Aboriginal, 15 per cent of people with disability, and 27 per cent whose language background was other than English.

The survey found that satisfaction with our services continues to be high at 87 per cent, with equal levels of satisfaction for clerical and lawyers' services.

The main cause for dissatisfaction by a small percentage of clients appears to be the limitation on the services that Legal Aid NSW can provide, and appointments scheduled too late to meet clients' timeframes. This was the same finding as in the 2013 survey.

The report recognised the resources and commitment of Legal Aid NSW in maintaining "the high level of staff commitment, concern for client needs and respectful treatment of clients, revealed in the survey" and recommended that these resources should be maintained.

The year ahead

Target policies to meet the legal needs of the most disadvantaged people across New South Wales, including victims of domestic violence, in a challenging funding environment.