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Annual Report 2016 - 2017

Efficiency measures

We began work on a new client and case management system that will support staff in meeting future business needs and deliver improved client services.

We collected data that demonstrates our value and quality and measured the financial impact of some of our policies. Our focus was not only on efficiency or financial factors—we were mindful of any adverse impact changes might have for our clients, especially in the area of eligibility for aid.

OBJECTIVE Access to justice

Online access for clients

A new Legal Aid NSW online application form was launched to make legal aid more accessible to clients who cannot readily attend our offices because of disability or mobility issues, or who live in a remote area. The new form is compatible with mobile, tablet and desktop devices. Behind the scenes, it integrates with our grants management system so that information entered into the form by clients is transferred into the system without the need for staff to re-enter data.

Plain English grants letters

The wording of correspondence from Legal Aid NSW to clients was identified as a key client service issue. Letters sent to clients about their applications and grants of legal aid were revised into plain English. Most of the letters were implemented during the year with the remaining letters to be implemented early in 2017–2018.

Change to financial contribution speeds up processing time

We made a small change to our contributions policy in May 2017. We now automatically waive the $75 initial contribution for clients who have Local Court criminal law matters and are in custody when they apply for legal aid. The change will assist in streamlining the contributions process and improve the processing time of Local Court summary crime matters.

Policy review measured costs and impacts

We reviewed three of our policies this year to assess the financial impact of the changes made to those policies.

Means Test: We introduced changes to the Means Test in August 2015 and January 2016 to make legal aid more accessible to working people on modest incomes.

We undertook a review to assess the impact of those changes on the number of grants and the demographic mix of clients. Our review found no measurable impact on the number of grants. There was a slight fall in the proportion of grants made to applicants receiving Commonwealth benefits, consistent with an increase in the number of working people qualifying for a grant of legal aid.

Working with children: In 2015, we amended the Working With Children Policy to make legal aid available to authorised carers, workers and others in exceptional circumstances. The policy made legal aid available to carers appealing a ‘Working With Children Check’ clearance decision to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal and the Supreme Court. Failure to obtain a working with children check clearance has significant consequences for authorised carers as it usually results in children being removed from their care. The review evaluated the financial impact of those changes. While the review identified an initial spike in expenditure due to the number of appeals being lodged, the trends indicate that the increase in the number of matters funded has slowed. The review concluded that the policy changes have not had a significant financial impact.

High Risk Offenders: We introduced amendments to the High Risk Offenders Policy in 2014. The review in September 2016 indicated that the cost of funding these matters was in line with predictions, and sustainable within the criminal law budget. Our review showed that legal representation achieves effective outcomes for disadvantaged clients.

New service models in remote New South Wales

Having reviewed the way we provide legal services to disadvantaged people in several locations in 2015–2016, we further examined options to address concerns in the North West of the state. We began the process of internally examining the services we provide, specifically in the North West, and the capacity for us to expand this service delivery. Currently, Legal Aid NSW service delivery in the North West relies on private lawyers and outreach from the Dubbo or Central Sydney offices.

This process of examination will be completed in early 2017–2018 and will inform option generation around how we may more efficiently and effectively service disadvantaged clients based in North West New South Wales.

OBJECTIVE Excellence in legal services

Ensuring an optimal criminal law appeals practice

In early 2017, Legal Aid NSW reviewed its policies and procedures in higher court criminal appeals. The review focused on the role of the public interest in the merit test for a grant of legal aid. It considered long-term trends in appeal rates and outcomes and analysed a sample of cases from grants of aid in 2013. The review also compared Legal Aid NSW appeal policies and procedures with legal aid commissions throughout Australia and New Zealand, and sought the views of legal stakeholders and victims’ groups.

The review concluded that success rates for legally aided appeals conducted by the in-house practice were appropriate and did not warrant changes to the current merit test. In the review period, appeals to the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal were upheld in an average of 40.7 per cent of cases in the review; special Leave to Appeal to the High Court was granted in ten out of 22 cases; and the High Court upheld six of nine legally aided appeals. The review highlighted areas where current policies and guidelines can be improved and made more transparent for the benefit of victims and the broader community, and where compliance by lawyers with those policies should be monitored more closely.

An increase in the quality of family law appeals in higher courts

To improve the quality of our appeals process, we established a central register of all in-house appeals and produced a manual with guidelines and procedures in appeals matters in care and protection and family law. This led to an improvement in the quality and number of significant appeals that we were involved in across all higher level courts, including the High Court of Australia and Supreme Court of NSW.

An internal review of our family law Appeals and Litigation Unit found that it contributed to improved services for our clients.

Better compliance with entering time (activity-based costing)

Our in-house lawyers and advocates now record the time they spend on delivering legal services following a rollout of activity based time-recording across our in-house practices.

In 2016–2017 we improved the level of compliance by staff with the requirement to enter time and introduced strategies to enhance the accuracy, completeness and timeliness of time-recording.

Costs recovered successfully in criminal law matters

The Grants Division identified 79 matters where lawyers had succeeded with costs applications in legally-aided criminal law proceedings. At 30 June 2017, claims valued at $1,284,000 had been submitted and $747,601 had been received.

Twelve months on—reviewing the new Domestic Violence Unit

We worked with the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW to review the early impact of the Domestic Violence Unit established last year, and determine its impact on clients and Legal Aid NSW services. The report found the Unit was filling gaps in legal services for people experiencing domestic and family violence.

Review to ensure communities of practice are achieving their potential

The civil law practice facilitates more than 15 communities of practice (COPS) in key areas such as housing, social security, health justice and domestic violence. COPS share expertise amongst peers, support professional development, and tackle systemic issues. A review commenced to ensure COPS are achieving their potential as a key part of our learning and development framework.

OBJECTIVE Supporting our people

New client and case management system—paving the way for change

Following the submission of a business case in 2015, Legal Aid NSW received funding from NSW Treasury via the Department of Justice in 2016 for a new client and case management system.

The objectives of the system are to:

  • improve client service
  • provide user-friendly, intuitive software for Legal Aid NSW staff to manage clients and cases
  • improve the automatic exchange of data with internal and external systems, including grants data and courts data
  • generate productivity improvements across legal and administrative staff
  • enable remote access from courts and other locations across New South Wales.

Three vendors were selected to engage in a Proof of Concept to demonstrate how their system met our requirements. A vendor will be selected in 2017–2018.

A Project Board, chaired by the Deputy CEO, monitors the project, including regularly checking on budget and risks. Regular reports are made to the Audit and Risk Committee of the Legal Aid NSW Board and the project is being road-mapped as part of the Department of Justice Rigorous Program Management methodology.

Physical environment supports staff to work safely and efficiently

This year, we completed a number of office relocations and refurbishments whilst maintaining safe uninterrupted service delivery, including:

  • relocating our Bankstown office to a space with safer interview areas and providing staff with more work points
  • refurbishing our Newcastle Bolton Street office, providing more interview rooms, including a child-friendly space and a baby change facility
  • refurbishing our Campbelltown office to include a child friendly interview room with a viewing window for parent supervision and a baby change facility.

We set up a permanent base in Broken Hill that better accommodates our mobile lawyers and increases our service capacity.

OBJECTIVE Strong partnerships

Improving justice for all parties in serious criminal matters

In May 2017, as part of a major criminal justice reform package, the NSW Attorney General announced a commitment to implement early appropriate guilty pleas reforms in early 2018. This followed a 2014 NSW Law Reform Commission (LRC) Report that recommended changes to increase the efficient resolution of serious criminal matters.

One of the main goals of the reforms is to decrease trial delays in the District Court. At some locations, the time between charge and trial is well over 12 months. This would benefit both victims and defendants and lead to greater efficiency in the justice system.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Legal Aid NSW worked closely with other Justice Cluster agencies following the release of the LRC Report to develop a plan for implementing the recommendations, aiming to increase efficiency and improve processes in delivering justice to all parties involved in serious criminal matters.

A team from the criminal law practice began working closely with the Department of Justice and other agencies to ensure successful implementation of the reforms. The team will design the changes needed to our in-house and assigned practices with a view to implementation in mid-2018.

Regional plans are built on local needs

The Regional Service Delivery Planning framework —established and trialled by five offices in 2015–2016 —was rolled out to a further five offices: Nowra, Orange, Penrith, Riverina-Murray and Tamworth, who completed their plans in 2016–2017.

Regional Service Delivery Planning takes evidence-based, legal-needs driven planning that has been used through Legal Aid NSW programs such as the Cooperative Legal Service Delivery Program and applies it to all our regional offices. As part of this planning each office examines demographic and other data about their local populations to identify likely local legal need. Offices also review all the legal services provided in their area, by Legal Aid NSW and Community Legal Centres, to consider what services they can offer and how they can fill gaps and best target the most disadvantaged local populations to provide appropriate legal assistance services.

Solicitors-in-Charge of an additional five offices (Campbelltown, Coffs Harbour, Fairfield, Lismore and Liverpool) attended training in March 2017 to develop their planning skills to develop the new evidence-based plans.

Integrated approach to prisoners’ needs

Several partners joined us in strategic ventures to provide better services to prisoners, including:

  • the University of Sydney to develop a strategic civil law plan for prisoners, targeting prisoners identified as at high risk of re-offending, and resolving legal problems that contribute to this risk such as housing, unpaid fines and debt
  • the Public Interest Advocacy Centre to implement a plan that identifies systemic issues in prisoners accessing health services and potential complaints to the New South Wales Ombudsman.

The year ahead

  • Implement the reforms arising from the criminal appeals policies and procedures review, improving the quality of the advice relevant to the merit test, and making the process more transparent for the benefit of victims and the wider community.
  • Implement the Department of Justice’s early appropriate guilty plea reforms package.
  • Build the new client and case management system, and release it before the end of the financial year.
  • Better understand the full cost of Legal Aid NSW services.
  • Conclude the review of our advice services to identify the key strengths and challenges of different service models and develop an implementation plan that ensures a more consistent experience for our clients.
  • Increase client safety by improving our processes to screen, identify risk, and respond to domestic and family violence across the family law practice.
  • Commence development of a ten-year plan for service delivery in Greater Western Sydney.