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Annual Report 2017 - 2018

CEO's report

Brendan Thomas, CEOIn my first full year as CEO of Legal Aid NSW, it has been my privilege to work alongside such experienced, knowledgeable and committed staff. Everywhere I look, I see a passion and a commitment that I find both humbling and deeply impressive.

Throughout the past year, and consistent with our Client Service Strategy, we have continued to put our clients at the centre of everything we do, which included providing 39,385 legal representation services, 197,038 duty services and 34,277 minor assistance services. We also increased our services to Aboriginal clients from 12.8% to 14.2%. Together with this, we worked on improving the way we deliver services to our clients.

Ensuring the most disadvantaged people can access legal assistance

We continued placing a strong focus on responding to domestic and family violence through early intervention and prevention. As well as continuing our Family Advocacy and Support Services, we expanded our Domestic Violence Unit (DVU) to the Central Coast. Overall, the DVU delivered more than 1,400 duty services, 1,240 legal advice services and 640 minor assistance services.

Our Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Program continued to roll out Safer Pathway to 16 locations across NSW taking the total number of sites to 43. This coordinated, interagency response to victims of domestic and family violence was recognised when we won the 2017 Premier’s Award for reducing domestic violence reoffending, alongside the NSW Police Force, the Department of Justice and Women NSW.

Following extensive consultation, we started expanding our in-house services to the North West of NSW. As of June 2018, we are providing in-house criminal law duty lawyer and casework assistance in Bourke, Brewarrina, Cobar, Coonamble, Nyngan, Lightning Ridge and Walgett. We will continue to expand these services over the next year to address the significant disadvantage and complex needs of our clients living in this region.

We piloted a new service type called Extended Legal Assistance, which focuses on early resolution for clients with multiple legal problems. Rather than providing discrete services to these clients, we can now provide a more holistic service, better reflecting the complexity of this work.

To improve the services we deliver to people experiencing or at risk of elder abuse, we also developed an Elder Abuse Strategy 2018–2019.

Delivering excellence and innovation

Over the past year, we played a key role in implementing major reforms introduced by the NSW Government.

Starting with the driver disqualification reforms, which will help people get back on the road safely, we provided legal assistance and duty representation across NSW, including in Wilcannia, Bourke and Brewarrina. We also delivered training on the reforms and produced a wide range of legal information resources.

In April 2018, reforms aimed at encouraging early appropriate guilty pleas commenced, substantially changing the process and procedure for indictable crime, resulting in significant changes for our Criminal Law Division.

To oversee this major reform, we participated constructively in working groups with other justice agencies, updated our policies and procedures, redesigned our workforce, and developed a new fee and panel structure for private practitioners. Together with this, we developed and delivered training to hundreds of inhouse staff and private practitioners across NSW.

We also started preparing for sentencing reforms due to commence in September 2018, by designing a training package for our in-house staff and private practitioners.

Responding to the withdrawal of services by the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) (ALS) at the State Parole Authority, we increased our services to prisoners. We also continued to embed civil law solicitors in various case management programs in prisons, such as the High Intensity Program Units. We also conducted a review of the services we currently provide to prisoners to understand how we can better target our legal assistance.

Through our Community Legal Education Framework, we are now delivering community legal education to a greater number of people, particularly our priority clients, in a more costeffective and less-resource intensive way. We are doing this by using technology such as enhanced webinar platforms, multi-media resources and podcasts.

Investing in our people

Improving our operating systems featured heavily in the work we did this year. We finalised the platform and vendor for our new Client and Case Management System. We comprehensively reviewed the end to end process for managing grants of legal aid, which included extensive consultation with staff. And we started making our HR processes more efficient by developing new reporting systems.

Recognising the pressures placed on our administrative staff, we started trialling relief services, whereby experienced administrative staff were placed in offices where capacity was stretched.

We expanded the Judge Bob Bellear Program by introducing an Aboriginal traineeship program, allowing a trainee to work with Legal Aid NSW while undertaking a Certificate III in Business Administration.

Continuing to prioritise the health and wellbeing of our staff, we held nine workshops on resilience. We also held six courses throughout the year on trauma-informed practice.

We partnered with Aboriginal community members to provide specific and tailored Aboriginal Cultural Competency training to our staff, private practitioners and key partners.

We continued to develop our leaders, commenced a Solicitor in Charge and Managers Orientations program and established regular meetings with senior staff to ensure they were aware of operational changes.

We also consulted closely with staff about the content and scope our upcoming strategic plan, which will set out our vision and purpose for the next five years.

Strengthening our partnerships

We continued to work closely with our partners, including the private profession, the health sector, community legal centres, ALS and other service providers.

In particular, the private profession continued to deliver a large number of our legal services and played a critical role in enabling Legal Aid NSW to deliver high quality legal services across NSW.

Responding to concerns about our fees being too low, we commenced a review of the fees we pay to the private profession. Consulting with the Law Society of NSW, NSW Bar Association, in-house staff and private practitioners, we received invaluable feedback and expect to complete the review in late 2018.

We also joined forces with Victoria Legal Aid to identify the legal issues faced by clients in cross-border communities and the barriers they experience when seeking legal assistance. Working together, both agencies conducted joint and co-ordinated service planning for all areas of law, trialling a centred approach to the legal aid forum test and advocating for improvements and reforms where necessary.

Thanks

Thanks go to our dedicated staff, our partners in the private and community legal sector, the Board, especially its Chair Craig Smith, and to the Legal Aid NSW Executive team for guiding and supporting the work we do.

I’d also like to acknowledge the work of Richard Funston, our Deputy CEO from 26 September 2016 to 20 April 2018. Richard left us this year to join the Local Court Magistracy. Richard was one of five staff members elevated to the bench in the past year, which I believe is a testament to the high premium we place on investing in our people and in their continued development, as professionals and as leaders.

Brendan Thomas
CEO, Legal Aid NSW