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Annual Report 2016 - 2017

Highlights this year: how we made a difference to clients and communities

An integrated approach to service delivery leads us to move away from traditional legal practices so we can provide client-centred services.

OBJECTIVE Access to justice

New approach to keep children and families safer

A new service is combining specialist legal assistance and social support to help families who have been affected by violence as they navigate the family law courts. It recognises that families affected by violence may also have complex non-legal needs in areas like housing and mental health.

The service, launched in western Sydney on 17 May by Commonwealth Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis QC, puts lawyers who understand trauma on hand in some of the state's busiest family law courts.

Legal Aid NSW received Commonwealth funding to establish the Family Advocacy and Support Service (FASS) in New South Wales under the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children.

Under the national scheme, Legal Aid Commissions in Australian states and territories work alongside specialist domestic violence services to help families affected by violence straddle both state and federal court systems.

In New South Wales, Legal Aid NSW operates FASS services at family court registries in Parramatta, Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.

The FASS builds on existing duty services in family law court settings to offer legal advice, risk screening and assessments, safety planning, social support services and referrals for families affected by violence.

This innovative approach aims to keep children and parents safer by offering the right support at a crucial time, with an emphasis on practical measures to keep them safe.

Social support is delivered through local Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services, which have been successfully operating in NSW courts for more than 20 years; and Relationships Australia, a leading provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.

Case study

Keeping Sarah and her child safe at home, at court and in the community

Sarah* had been in an on-again, off-again relationship with Rod* for almost a decade. The only constant over their years together was violence, both physical and psychological. Rod repeatedly stalked Sarah, and physically hurt her while she was pregnant with their son, Zach*.

Sarah reached a turning point when Rod punched her in the face and threw her to the ground in front of Zach, who is now a toddler. Following this incident, Sarah stopped sending Zach to stay with his father, and the two parents headed to court. When Sarah arrived at the courthouse she did not have a lawyer and was terrified of going before a judge and telling her story on her own. Tearful and shaking, she approached the FASS duty lawyer and revealed her family’s history of violence.

The FASS lawyer appeared on her behalf that day and was able to seek an adjournment so that the Court could properly consider all the evidence about Rod and Sarah’s history together, and how best to keep Zach safe.

Sarah has also been connected with a FASS support worker, who has been working with Sarah, the court and other services to help keep Sarah and Zach safe at home, at court and in the community. This specialist support has helped Sarah feel more confident about coming back to court, and hopeful about her future.

* Names have been changed

Safety for victims of domestic violence

The purpose of the Legal Aid NSW Domestic and Family Violence Strategy 2016-2018 is to ensure that Legal Aid NSW delivers high quality client-centred services to people affected by domestic and family violence.

Implementation of the Domestic and Family Violence Strategy 2016-2018 is well underway. A summary of the Strategy can be found on the Legal Aid NSW website under What we do > Domestic and family violence.

Under the Strategy, more specialised services were provided to victims of domestic and family violence. Throughout the year, the Legal Aid NSW Domestic Violence Unit (DVU) provided services to victims of domestic and family violence alongside the Apprehended Domestic Violence Order lists at Burwood, Fairfield, Liverpool and Bankstown Local Courts. The DVU also established advice clinics at Bankstown Women’s Health and Burwood Community Welfare Services.

The DVU delivered 1,926 in-court duty services in 2016–2017. The unit’s specialist lawyers also delivered 2,082 legal advice and assistance sessions to people experiencing domestic violence, from 94 different countries of origin.

In 2016–2017, the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services supported 43,006 clients. The Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Program (WDVCAP) rolled out Safer Pathway—a locally coordinated, holistic response to domestic and family violence—to 21 more locations and trained 2,030 of our partners involved in providing support to women across the state (See Protection for victims strategy). Legal Aid NSW manages the WDVCAP.

Increasing our services to Aboriginal communities

Strategies in the Legal Aid NSW Reconciliation Action Plan 2015-2018 address the legal needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities across New South Wales.

One of the goals is to provide legal services to Aboriginal communities that have difficulty accessing legal services and are experiencing high levels of disadvantage.

We established new outreach services for Aboriginal communities in Minto, Tweed Heads and Wallaga Lake in response to identified gaps in the provision of legal services to Aboriginal communities in those areas.

A dedicated Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities—75 per cent of whom are Aboriginal employees—provided advice, assistance, and casework services for a range of civil law problems. Housing and consumer issues made up 67 per cent of their work whilst fines and social security issues made up a further 12 per cent. This includes assisting clients to avoid eviction, obtain repairs, ensure fair application of Housing NSW policies, and obtain compensation in unfair credit and consumer lease contracts.

The team focused on legal issues that lead to contact with the criminal justice system (such as unpaid fines, housing issues and debt) and systemic consumer issues.

This year, the Service had a regular presence in more than 15 communities across New South Wales and recently expanded to several communities on the South Coast and a specialist service in Dubbo. The Service also provided 75 advice and minor assistance services, particularly around housing, to Aboriginal women at Silverwater Correctional Centre.

In the last two years, the Service has achieved debt waivers and compensation for their clients totalling $1,210,031, of which 76 per cent arises from unfair consumer deals and the remainder from fines work and housing disputes.

In 2016–2017, 13.9 per cent of all in-house civil law advice services were provided to Aboriginal clients. In-house family law advice sessions to Aboriginal people increased by 18.3 per cent from 2015–2016.

Expanding services in the Riverina and Murray regions

After last year’s opening of the Albury satellite office in the Riverina-Murray, we expanded services where they were needed the most. For example, having a family lawyer in Albury, allowed us to provide legal representation in care and protection matters in Deniliquin, some two and a half hours from Albury. Deniliquin is a rural community that we identified as having unmet legal need.

We worked closely with Hume Riverina Community Legal Centre, the Wagga Wagga and Albury Co-operative Legal Service Delivery Program and Victoria Legal Aid to plan joint services to clients in this cross-border region.

The Riverina-Murray office was also one of five Legal Aid NSW offices to develop a plan that responds to the particular legal and related needs of clients living in that area.

Early contact can mean early resolution

Legal Aid NSW continues to strengthen and expand the use of outreach legal advice services as a way of reaching disadvantaged communities.

Advice clinics in the heart of communities: we don’t wait for clients to come to us
Locations with regular legal outreach services 221
Outreach services for Aboriginal communities* 48
Locations with regular outreach services in regional and remote areas 172
Locations based in Centrelink offices 4
Locations where clients can access civil law advice** 164
Locations where clients can access family law advice** 95
Locations where clients can access criminal law advice*** 35

* Includes services provided by the Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities (CLSAC) at locations 6-8 times per year
** Some locations offer advice in more than one area of law
*** Includes outreach to correctional centres as well as seven dedicated criminal law advice outreach services.

Our lawyers step out of their traditional legal practices, away from casework, so that they can focus on establishing a range of new services at outreach locations accessible to communities. This way, they can help clients to identify an issue in the early stages before it becomes a complex case.

A number of new metropolitan and regional outreach services were established throughout 2016–2017. Of particular note is a new civil law advice service at the Calvary Riverina Hospital in Wagga Wagga. The hospital service is for the exclusive use of patients attending the drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic. Post discharge, any ongoing casework is undertaken by the Wagga Wagga Legal Aid office.

Findings from the Legal Australia-Wide (LAW) Survey 2012 show a correlation between the experience of long-term illness/disability and legal problems. The link strengthens as severity of an illness or disability increases, and is particularly strong for mental illness.1

There is also increasing recognition that legal problems can have a detrimental impact on the health and social circumstances of individuals.2

1 Coumarelos, C., Pleasence, P. and Wei, Z, Law and Disorders: illness/disability and the experience of everyday problems involving the law, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Justice Issues Paper 17, September 2013.

2 Note (Ibid 1 above, page 27).

Staff with years of experience were recruited for the new Client Service Unit to guide us in carrying out the Client Service Strategy 2016-2020.

OBJECTIVE Strong partnerships

New approach—surveying casework clients

A new form of client satisfaction survey was undertaken to meet the requirements of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services 2015-2020.

Over the past 10 years our bi-annual client satisfaction surveys canvassed satisfaction with legal advice and minor assistance services. This year, we took a different approach and surveyed a random sample of casework clients with current files (serviced by in-house lawyers only). Taverner Research interviewed 690 clients by the end of June 2017. The overall client satisfaction rating was 87 per cent.

New questions were asked about the process of applying for a grant of aid, what happens after you get a grant, and paying contributions.

Once the data is analysed, we will be able to use the information to feed directly into service improvements.

Who answered the survey?

690 Clients helped by in-house lawyers, who had a grant of aid between March and June 2017*.

Over 90% agreed that:

  • their lawyer helped them to understand how to deal with their legal problem
  • their lawyer listened to their legal problem
  • they would recommend the legal service to other people.

* Clients in custody and mental health facilities and clients who were less than 16 years of age were not interviewed.

87% satisfied with the overall service.

Over 86% satisfied with administrative and reception staff and their Legal Aid NSW lawyer.

80% satisfied with service received from the Grants Division.

(For those who had direct contact with Grants staff).

OBJECTIVE Excellence in legal services

Getting it right when clients first approach us

During 2016, Legal Aid NSW developed our Client Service Strategy 2016-2020 with the intention of transforming how we deliver services by putting our clients at the centre of everything we do. The Legal Aid NSW Board endorsed the Strategy in September 2016.

The Strategy identifies strategic shifts and initiatives to improve our client service—mainly to provide services that are consistent and processes that are easy for clients to use. It also commits us to communicate clearly with clients and strengthen partnerships so clients are referred between legal and social services more easily.

The program of work for the first 18 months of the Strategy focuses on redesigning ‘client entry’, as well as some more complex work such as starting a longer term project to review the Legal Aid NSW advice model and develop a strategic framework for advice services.

Initiatives since September 2016 include:

  • reviewing amenities for clients with diverse needs at all Legal Aid NSW offices
  • launching an online legal aid application form to broaden access for clients
  • testing a case management approach for a small group of clients with complex needs who have multiple touch points across the organisation.

Other actions to ensure our systems and processes are more efficient and effective—contributing to a better client experience—appear in Efficiency measures.

The year ahead

  • Design a ‘triage’ approach to assess client need and capability on first entry to Legal Aid NSW.
  • Make service improvements in response to client feedback.
  • Provide integrated duty lawyer and family violence support services in designated family law courts as part of the Family Advocacy and Support Service.
  • Expand legal service delivery in remote New South Wales to improve client access to legal assistance.
  • Deliver culturally competent legal services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities in partnership with local communities.
  • Implement domestic and family violence reforms.