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Annual Report 2014 - 2015

CEO's report

Bill Grant, CEO, Legal Aid NSW I am pleased to present the Legal Aid NSW 2014-2015 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. The case studies throughout the report bring our work to life. We continually adjust the way we deliver services to meet the needs of our clients and the changing service delivery environment.

This was the last year of our five year National Partnership Agreement with the Commonwealth. I am pleased to report that we exceeded the performance benchmarks, increasing our early intervention services by 98 per cent and our total number of services by 47 per cent. These are outstanding results and they reflect a lot of hard work by our staff.

Following extensive negotiations with the Commonwealth, a new five-year National Partnership Agreement was signed in June 2015. While there is a reduction in Commonwealth funding for Legal Aid NSW, the new agreement gives us some certainty about our Commonwealth funding for the next five years. This allows us to plan our services and provide some employment certainty for staff.

Catching problems early

We continued to develop innovative ways to assist people to identify and address legal issues as early as possible.

Community legal education is central to this. In 2014-2015 our program focused on educating young people, families, Aboriginal people, newly arrived people and community workers.

Over 7,000 young people and 600 teachers and workers attended workshops on sexting and cyberbullying.

We provided community workers with the skills to identify their clients' legal issues through Law Check-Up, an easy to use checklist of common legal problems.

Smart use of technology allowed us to reach a larger group of people in need of legal help. Our new Legal Aid App for iPhone and Android provides a handy gateway to our services. People can search for the Legal Aid NSW service closest to them, watch videos about the law, book into one of our workshops and access our factsheets and resources. We introduced webinars on everyday legal issues ranging from mortgage stress and fines to divorce and child support.

Our family dispute resolution programs play an important role in resolving issues as early as possible. Our 80 per cent success rate for mediations this year meant that many clients avoided the stress and expense of going to court. We established new early intervention and alternative dispute resolution services in response to the child protection reforms.

Providing services in rural and remote communities

We expanded our services to rural and remote communities, who are often isolated and have difficulty accessing legal services.

Our regional offices are the backbone of our services to these communities. A highlight of the year was the opening of a new Legal Aid NSW office in Port Macquarie in December 2014. This is an area with limited legal services and high legal need. The new office works closely with local lawyers to deliver services in Port Macquarie and surrounding areas such as Taree, Kempsey and Forster. Our lawyers have provided over 1,500 legal advice and assistance sessions and represented 1,600 people in court, either as duty lawyers or under a family or criminal law grant of aid in the six and a half months since the office was opened.

Legal Aid NSW lawyers have become increasingly mobile, reaching into the heart of some very isolated regional and rural communities. The number of outreach locations where Legal Aid NSW provides services has increased by 43 per cent since 2010-2011, with 154 of these being in rural and regional areas.

The Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities has visited a number of disadvantaged Aboriginal communities to provide assistance with fines, debt, consumer law, housing and social security problems. In 2014-2015 the service provided 2,262 advice and minor assistance services.

Assisting clients with complex needs

Many of our clients suffer deep and persistent disadvantage, and we are continually looking for new ways to assist these clients.

One group who is particularly vulnerable are young people with complex needs who may have an intellectual disability, mental health issues or profound trauma from childhood experiences. These young people often come into contact with Legal Aid NSW through our Children's Legal Service.

We have developed a wrap-around service that looks at the civil, family and criminal law needs of these clients, with the aim of breaking the cycle of disadvantage. To assist with this we have entered into partnerships with the Koori Youth Court and the Children's Court at Parramatta, and have been working closely with the NSW Ombudsman, NSW Police and Family and Community Services. We will evaluate this service in 2015-2016.

Working with our partners

Legal Aid NSW cannot do its 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.

In a year of considerable government reform, we played a central coordination role in two key areas of government reform: domestic violence and the care and protection of children.

We successfully implemented It Stops Here: Safer Pathway at Waverley and Orange to increase the safety of women experiencing domestic violence.

We worked collaboratively to develop and implement new models for the delivery of legal services in child protection law targeting casework assistance to disadvantaged families.

Private lawyers are central to how we deliver our services under the mixed model of service delivery. In 2014-2015, private lawyers provided 42 per cent of our case and duty services. We carried out the record reappointment of 1,110 current panel members whose five year appointments were due to expire.

The evaluation of our partnership with Settlement Services International to provide legal services to disadvantaged members of multilingual communities found that the partnership had resulted in increased levels of assistance to these communities. We were able to reach clients in a part of Sydney that we previously did not serve well and provide them with much needed services.

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 successfully implemented the major requirements of the act ahead of the required time frames.

In anticipation of a new Code of Conduct, a Workplace Behaviour and Ethics Working Group has developed a plan to improve staff awareness of ethical behaviour and promote a positive organisational culture.

We also used the introduction of the act as an opportunity to improve our executive capability.

We continue to take the wellbeing, health and safety of our staff very seriously. We implemented a well check program aimed at administrative and legal staff, particularly those dealing with confronting issues. Many of our staff need to travel long distances to provide services at courts and outreach locations. We have introduced new safe driving guidelines and safe driving training to support these staff.

Meeting savings targets with minimal impact on services

"We have exceeded our Commonwealth performance benchmarks, reflecting a lot of hard work by our staff."

Given that we experienced a reduction in Commonwealth funding, our financial result for 2014-2015 was outstanding. Legal Aid NSW met its savings targets with minimal impact on legal aid services, no frontline staff cuts and no impact on services in State crime, which represents the largest area of legal aid expenditure.

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 and public legal assistance sector, who work tirelessly to assist disadvantaged people in New South Wales to resolve their legal problems.

William Grant
Chief Executive Officer,
Legal Aid NSW