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Annual Report 2018 - 2019

Contributing to law reform

Our experience working with clients and communities across NSW gives us insight into the way in which the law affects vulnerable and disadvantaged people, and informs our advocacy on legal and policy issues.

In 2018–19 we developed and began implementing our two-year strategic law reform agenda, identifying issues that commonly affect our clients and opportunities to work collaboratively with other agencies to achieve systemic change. The Board has approved the agenda and the Strategic Law Reform Unit is overseeing its implementation.

Our Strategic Law Reform Unit made 32 public submissions in 2018–19 and helped shape a range of draft bills and other government proposals. For details of all public submissions finalised this year, see Appendix 7.

OBJECTIVE: A fairer justice system

A respected voice in inquiries and legislative reform processes

We made submissions to the NSW Law Reform Commission in relation to consent for sexual offences, and to the NSW Sentencing Council in relation to sentencing of recidivist traffic offenders.

We successfully advocated for amendments to the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 (NSW) for child defendants. These amendments recognise the power dynamic that may exist between paid carers and dependants, and provides police with greater discretion to deal with disputes arising in the context of these relationships.

We advocated for fairer outcomes for veterans through our submission to a Productivity Commission inquiry into the system of compensation and rehabilitation for veterans. We argued that veterans should have access to legal representation at the Veterans’ Review Board where the matter is complex or the veteran is particularly vulnerable. We also called for greater transparency in Veterans’ Review Board decision-making processes and determinations.

We continued to review the impact of the transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) on people with disability in NSW and their loved ones. We made submissions to the NDIS Thin Markets Project, and to the NSW Legislative Council inquiry into the implementation of the NDIS and the provision of disability services in NSW.

Our lawyers gave evidence at the NSW Legislative Council inquiry into Parklea Correctional Centre and other operational issues before the Legal Affairs Committee, focusing on systemic health care issues faced by people in custody, including cases in which prisoners have faced unreasonable waits for basic medical care, lack of access to mental health treatment, and lack of continuity of care between prisons or on return to the wider community. The final report of the inquiry recommended that the NSW Government provide sufficient additional resources to the Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network to enable it to meet the health needs of the NSW prisoner population, with particular emphasis on their mental health needs.

A remedy for students targeted by private training colleges

Our advocacy helped prompt national law reform to provide a remedy for vulnerable students who were inappropriately enrolled by a vocational education and training (VET) provider.

In many cases of “inappropriate enrolment”, students were never told they would incur a debt if they signed up to a course, or only discovered once they lodged their tax return that a study loan had been taken out in their name without their consent. Others were promised they would have a qualification and a job if they completed a course. Many of those exploited came from the country’s most vulnerable communities, including new migrants or people leaving a Centrelink office. Clients we have assisted in relation to these matters include elderly Vietnamese migrants who spoke limited English and received Centrelink benefits, and one client with schizophrenia and depression who was receiving the Disability Support Pension.

Under new laws that came into effect in January 2019, students will be able to have their fee balance re-credited by the Department of Education, so that their debt to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) no longer exists. Legal Aid NSW has assisted a number of clients with complaints about VET providers to obtain enrolment reversals, debt waivers, and transfers to more suitable course providers.

Shining a light on unfair banking and insurance practices

Legal Aid NSW represented or supported clients giving evidence before the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, allowing them to highlight experiences in which the actions of banks, insurers and others fell short of community expectations.

One of our civil lawyers gave expert evidence at a hearing focused on issues relating to small businesses about her experience advising and representing older people who enter into financial agreements for the benefit of a relative. We also provided written submissions to the royal commission before and after each relevant round of hearings, and in respect of its interim report.

We also made submissions, and provided evidence to a range of reviews aimed at improving the financial services sector, including:

  • a Treasury review of the early release of superannuation benefits
  • a Treasury consultation on disclosure in general insurance
  • the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the resolution of disputes with financial service providers
  • an Australian Securities and Investment Commission consultation on responsible lending conduct
  • a consultation on changes to Australian Financial Complaints Authority rules, and
  • the Financial Services Council’s Life Insurance Draft Code of Practice 2.0.

Story iconOur lawyers support witnesses to tell their story through the banking royal commission

We supported three Legal Aid NSW clients to give evidence at the banking royal commission, sharing their experiences and highlighting systemic issues in the financial services sector.

One former client was Bernadette Heald, a NSW woman with special needs children whose family home was badly damaged in the Hunter Valley floods of 2015. She came to Legal Aid NSW for help after struggling to resolve a months-long dispute with her insurer over necessary repairs to the property.

The insurer initially offered the family just $30,000 to cover repairs to the badly damaged house. Following intervention by a Legal Aid NSW lawyer, the insurer was required to pay for the house to be knocked down and rebuilt, at a cost of more than $700,000, and for temporary accommodation for the family.

“I decided to give evidence to warn others not to take the first offer from an insurance company after a natural disaster,” Ms Heald told the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.

“I was made to feel that I was doing something wrong, even though we were claiming something that we were entitled to, and had been paying for, for years.”

The final report of the royal commission noted Ms Heald’s evidence that she would not have been able to resolve her insurance issue without the help of a lawyer. Legal Aid NSW has provided specialist advice to people affected by natural disasters since 2008.

Improving the family law system

Legal Aid NSW joined with other legal aid commissions to contribute to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s family law inquiry, the first comprehensive review into the family law system since the commencement of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth). The review was designed to ensure our family law system suited the contemporary needs of families and could effectively address family violence and child abuse. National Legal Aid provided comprehensive submissions, to which Legal Aid NSW contributed. These submissions were reflected in the Australian Law Reform Commission’s final report and recommendations, released in March 2019.

If implemented, some of these recommendations will have far-reaching implications for the family law system and for Legal Aid NSW. They included:

  • the establishment of state and territory family courts to exercise jurisdiction concurrently under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), as well as state and territory child protection and family violence jurisdictions
  • the redrafting, restructuring and simplification of the Act
  • the expansion of family dispute resolution to financial disputes and a move to require parties to show that they have taken “genuine steps” to resolve disputes before commencing court proceedings, and
  • the expansion of the Family Advocacy and Support Service, which in NSW is delivered and coordinated by Legal Aid NSW.

We also made submissions or provided expert feedback in relation to domestic and family violence, family law court structures, forced marriage, elder abuse and apprehended domestic violence orders.

Gosford staff-sml

Legal Aid NSW Gosford office staff are pictured in front of Gosford Court House. Back row: civil lawyer Susan Grey and criminal lawyer Ian Le Breton; second row: civil lawyers Tanya Chapman and Mary Lovelock; third row: criminal lawyer Hayley Dean, Office Manager Kim Chandler and criminal lawyer David Gibbons; front row: Solicitor in Charge Gabrielle Cantrall, civil lawyer Jessica Urquhart and criminal lawyer Danielle Captain-Webb


Year ahead iconThe year ahead

  • We will continue to comment on legislative and other policy proposals to address the particular circumstances of our clients.
  • We will continue to implement our strategic law reform agenda.
  • We will monitor NDIS access issues for our clients, and identify potential improvements.
  • We will continue to advocate for legislative, policy and operational reforms to ensure that children and young people are appropriately diverted from the criminal justice system.
  • Our Domestic Violence Unit and Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Program will contribute to legal and policy reform in relation to the use of warrants to bring victims of domestic violence to court as witnesses.