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Annual Report 2016 - 2017

Chair's report

Craig Smith, ChairOn behalf of the Board I am pleased to introduce the 2016– 2017 Annual Report.

It is my continuing privilege to chair the Board of such a committed and dynamic organisation.

The Board is responsible for establishing the broad policies and strategic plans of Legal Aid NSW. The members of the Board bring a diverse range of backgrounds, expertise and experience to this role. Their commitment to the task is evidenced by the robust discussions at the Board meetings this year. In the interest of transparency a summary of the decisions made at each Board meeting is published in this report.

Ensuring successful outcomes

The Board continued to monitor the implementation of the policies and plans established by the Board, including the 2016–2017 Strategic Plan, the Diversity Action Plan and the Reconciliation Action Plan.

The Board reviewed the financial and operational reports at each Board meeting and considered the reports of the Audit and Risk Committee.

A sad loss and a great legacy

We were all shocked and saddened by the death of Bill Grant within weeks of his retiring as CEO. Bill retired on 2 December 2016. He was a compassionate and inspirational leader. Bill's enduring legacy is the creative culture that he fostered and the leaders he developed within Legal Aid NSW.

Leadership renewal

Steve O'Connor, Deputy CEO, also retired in December 2016. Bill and Steve were champions of Legal Aid NSW and were held in the highest regard by the Board. Steve was also an Honorary Director of the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ ACT) Ltd.

Richard Funston, formerly Director Criminal Law, replaced Steve as Deputy CEO.

I thank Richard for his outstanding leadership as acting CEO from December 2016 until May 2017. I also thank the Executive team for their support to the staff and to the Board over this period.

"The Board welcomed the appointment of Brendan Thomas as CEO – the first Aboriginal CEO of Legal Aid NSW."

The Board welcomed the appointment of Brendan Thomas as CEO in May 2017. Brendan was previously Deputy Secretary of the Department of Justice. Brendan is the first Aboriginal CEO of Legal Aid NSW.

The Board looks forward to working with the new generation of leaders.

Ensuring that legal aid is provided in the most effective, efficient and economical manner

The Board undertook a major review of the policy on funding Court of Criminal Appeal and High Court appeals, particularly the merit test. The Board re-established the Crime and Grants Sub-Committee to advise on this issue. Consultation was conducted with key legal stakeholders and with victims’ groups. The review compared Legal Aid NSW appeal policies and procedures with those of legal aid commissions throughout Australia and New Zealand.

The Board considered a detailed report of the review and resolved not to change the current merit test, but did approve recommendations aimed at improving legal aid practices and procedures; improving the quality of advice relevant to the merit test; and, to making the process more transparent for the benefit of victims and the wider community. The Board will monitor the implementation of the recommendations.

Changes to policy approved

During the year a number of policies were reviewed to ensure legal help remains available to the most vulnerable clients in the state. The Board was pleased to pass a change to the contributions policy which waived the initial contributions for applicants in custody in local court summary matters, to expand the availability of legal aid to vulnerable young people, to clients in additional types of employment law matters and for serious crime prevention order proceedings.

Funding to Community Legal Centres a major challenge during the year

Funding for Community Legal Centres (CLCs) under the CLC Program, administered by Legal Aid NSW, occupied much of the Board’s time, being discussed at two ordinary and two extraordinary meetings in 2016-2017.

The Board expressed its concern about reduced Commonwealth funding available for allocation to CLCs in the next financial year to the NSW Attorney General. Subsequently, additional funding was provided by both the New South Wales and Commonwealth governments. The Board welcomed these decisions in acknowledging the importance of the CLC Program and was pleased to be able to approve increased new funding allocations for 2017–2018.

Jurisdictional planning and cooperation between Legal Aid NSW and our partners in the community legal sector continued apace during this difficult period for CLCs.

Audits review performance and manage risks

The Board also monitored our organisation’s performance under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, and its budgets and financial statements and appointed new members of the Legal Aid Review Committees.

The Audit and Risk Committee implemented its audit strategy, which included internal audits of claims by private lawyers, workplace injury, services in regional areas, as well as information security and management and business continuity.

The committee also oversaw the implementation of the Activity Based Costing scheme under which our lawyers record time spent in delivering legal services. During the year it reviewed and revised the Audit and Risk Committee Charter and appointed new members following changes at senior executive and board level.

Special thanks

Thank you to all involved in the provision of legal aid.

I wish to acknowledge and thank the staff of Legal Aid NSW for their commitment to the provision of legal aid across the State. Your work is so important. Thank you also to our partners in the private profession and legal assistance sector who we rely on in helping our clients.

Craig Smith
Chair, Legal Aid NSW