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Annual Report 2018 - 2019

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

OBJECTIVE: Meeting clients' needs

Stepping into communities to resolve legal problems

Legal Aid NSW continues to strengthen and expand outreach services so that more disadvantaged and remote communities have ready access to legal help.

When providing outreach services, lawyers work with clients in their communities – in schools and hospitals, community halls and housing estates – to reach people who might otherwise face barriers accessing legal services. Lawyers help clients identify and resolve legal issues at the earliest opportunity, before they escalate, producing better outcomes for clients, for their communities and for our broader justice system.

To help us plan our outreach activities, ensure best practice, and support the safety and wellbeing of staff who deliver outreach services, we have an Outreach Network. During 2018–19 the Outreach Network updated Legal Aid NSW safe driving guidelines for staff, improved and streamlined our processes for establishing and changing outreach services, and contributed to the revision of outreach risk assessment processes and guidelines.

Advice clinics in the heart of communities – we don’t wait for clients to come to us

Locations with regular legal outreach servicesi 243
Outreach services for Aboriginal communities* 55
Locations with regular outreach services in regional and remote areas 188
Locations based in Centrelink offices  4
Locations where clients can access civil law advice** 181
Locations where clients can access family law advice** 108
Locations where clients can access criminal law advice*** 40

i Does not include outreaches we fund through the Regional Outreach Clinic Program – see Increasing access to justice
* Includes services provided at certain locations by the Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities six to eight times per year
** Services in some locations offer advice in more than one area of law
*** Includes outreach to correctional centres as well as 23 outreach locations where clients can access criminal law advice

Story iconMelinda faced a difficult choice

Melinda* was receiving treatment at a residential drug rehabilitation facility where our lawyer provided an outreach service. Melinda was a tenant in social housing, and her mother was caring for her two young children at her property while she was being treated. Melinda’s housing provider would allow her to be absent from her property for six months without losing her subsidised lease, but this period was due to expire before Melinda could complete her treatment program. She had been told she either needed to give up the property or return to it immediately – meaning she faced a choice between leaving the rehabilitation facility without completing her treatment for drug addiction, or leaving her family homeless.

As a result of our lawyer’s advocacy, the housing provider agreed to allow Melinda’s subsidised lease to continue, and she was able to continue receiving the treatment she needed. It is unlikely Melinda would have been able to access legal support were it not for the outreach service we provided.

* Not her real name

Expanding in-house services in remote NSW

We significantly expanded our in-house services in northwest NSW through the establishment of satellite offices in Bourke and Walgett, in response to feedback from legal and nonlegal service providers about the high levels of disadvantage experienced by communities in this region.

We created two Aboriginal-identified community liaison officer roles based in Bourke and Walgett. Our community liaison officers have a key role in building relationships with local communities, helping community members understand and access our services, and supporting Legal Aid NSW lawyers providing services in the region. We created two additional criminal lawyer positions to provide in-house criminal law services in seven new communities. These two lawyers appear in most legally aided criminal matters before the Local Court and Children’s Court in Bourke, Brewarrina, Cobar, Coonamble, Lightning Ridge, Nyngan and Walgett, and before the District Court in Coonamble and Bourke.

Private lawyers continue to have a role in local criminal law service delivery in the region through back-up duty work. Our new in-house criminal law services complement legal services provided by the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ ACT), Thiyama-li Family Violence Prevention Legal Service and civil and family law services provided by Legal Aid NSW lawyers and supported by our new community liaison officers.

Policy changes mean more clients can be helped by in-house lawyers

Changes to our policy on conflicts of interest this year mean that our in-house lawyers will be able to provide advice and duty services to more people.

The new policy followed extensive consultation with staff and external stakeholders, including the Law Society of NSW and the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner, and a review of developments in the law.

The new policy relies on the use of information barriers around individual lawyers and some specialist practices. When clients first receive a service from Legal Aid NSW, they are given a Client Disclosure Statement, which sets out the way in which we provide services and keep client information confidential. In addition to the English version, the Client Disclosure Statement is available in 23 languages and easy English.

Evaluating our Refugee Service

We engaged the Cultural and Indigenous Research Centre Australia to conduct a process evaluation of the Legal Aid NSW Refugee Service to inform its ongoing implementation and service delivery. We will respond to the recommendations of the evaluation in 2019–20. Our Refugee Service provides free civil and family law assistance to newly arrived refugees, with a focus on improving their legal literacy. The evaluation “found the service has had significant impacts on the lives of refugees, improving the quality of life for both clients and their families”.

Family Advocacy and Support Service

We helped more families experiencing violence navigate our family law system through our Family Advocacy and Support Service (FASS).

Under a national scheme, legal aid commissions across Australia work alongside specialist domestic violence services to help families affected by violence straddle both state and federal court systems. In NSW, Legal Aid NSW operates the service at family court registries in Parramatta, Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong. The FASS delivered 2,546 duty services across these four registries in 2018–19 – a 12 percent increase compared with the previous year.

The service 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.

An evaluation carried out on behalf of the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department and finalised in October 2018 found that the FASS was an effective and important program that filled a gap in legal and social service provision to family law clients who were affected by domestic and family violence. It also found that the FASS had increased clients’ awareness of family violence, and made it more likely that clients affected by violence would seek help. For many clients, family violence had not been identified prior to engagement with the FASS, meaning that a traumainformed intervention with a focus on risk assessment and safety planning was critical.

The final report of the evaluation recommended that additional funding be made available to improve the provision of these supports to better meet the needs of clients. These recommendations were supported by the Australian Law Reform Commission following its review of the family law system.

Planning our first dedicated Elder Abuse Service on the Central Coast

This year the Australian Government announced funding for Legal Aid NSW to set up a specialist Elder Abuse Service trial on the NSW Central Coast. This specialist unit will be located in our Gosford office. The Central Coast is well placed to host this service, as it has one of the largest populations of disadvantaged older people in NSW.

In our casework experience, elder abuse is frequently perpetrated by family members, which can make it harder for an older person to seek help.

Our Elder Abuse Service will be delivered by a multidisciplinary team, which will include lawyers and a social worker. The service will respond to financial, physical and psychological abuse by providing legal representation and advice, as well as non-legal support.

Story iconFrom the courtroom to the classroom

In a first for Legal Aid NSW, we embedded a lawyer in Fairfield High School. Our school lawyer program aims to address challenges faced by students and their families in accessing legal assistance in southwest Sydney.

Our lawyer provides legal advice, information and community legal education that is tailored to the school community. More than half the students at this school are from refugee backgrounds, and 94 percent have a language background other than English. Students may be the first members of their family to learn English, and so become advocates for their families. Providing a flexible, accessible legal service in this setting allows us to reach families early, before legal issues escalate. This pilot program also acknowledges the impact of unresolved legal problems on students? ability to fully engage with their education.

Learning from our clients – our largest client satisfaction survey yet

We undertook our largest client satisfaction survey to date to understand how clients think and feel about the legal help provided by Legal Aid NSW. Surveys give us the information we need to ensure our services match clients’ needs. We use the results to plan our services, develop the skills and capacity of our staff, and make our processes and systems more efficient for our clients and for the private lawyers who do work on our behalf.

In previous years, our biennial client satisfaction surveys canvassed satisfaction with legal advice and minor assistance services. Since 2017 we have instead concentrated on casework, which is the most complex and time-consuming work we do.

In 2019 we surveyed 1,400 clients – more than double the number of survey respondents in 2017. And for the first time, we heard from legally aided clients of both inhouse lawyers and private lawyers. The overall client satisfaction rating was 84 percent.

What our clients said
  • 1,400 clients* were interviewed between March and June 2019
  • Three in four told us they were highly satisfied with our service
  • Overall, 84% were satisfied with our service
  • 86% of clients who were helped by an in-house lawyer told us they were satisfied
  • 83% of clients who were helped by a private lawyer told us they were satisfied

* Clients in custody, children under 16 years of age and clients in mental health facilities were not interviewed

Help from Legal Aid NSW made a difference for our clients
  • 71% told us they felt more confident dealing with their problem
  • 63% felt safer or more secure as a result of the legal assistance they received
  • 62% felt more able to deal with their financial situation as a result of the legal assistance they received

Our service model for priority client groups is taking shape

This year we developed a high-level service model to help us ensure our services to clients are consistent. An overarching client service model is essential if we are to meet the growing demand for legal assistance.

Our new client service model has been designed around the principles of:

  • putting our clients at the centre of everything we do
  • graduating service responses to align client support to need
  • streamlining entry points and triage
  • taking advantage of digital innovation and good design to meet the needs of our clients, and
  • supporting staff wellbeing.

We consulted closely with nine regional offices, 16 specialist units and senior leadership groups across all practice areas to develop our client service model, which we refined through a client service summit in which 50 staff from across NSW participated.

Our new service model will set out structured referral pathways inside Legal Aid NSW, and between Legal Aid NSW and other organisations. It will differentiate between universal services that are available to the public regardless of disadvantage or capability, individualised services that are available to more disadvantaged or vulnerable clients, including targeted advice, minor assistance and mediation services, and intensive services that we deliver over a longer period of time. These intensive services are also available to more disadvantaged or vulnerable clients and include representation through a grant of aid.

Rethinking the way we target and deliver legal advice

A 2017 review of our legal advice services revealed inconsistencies in the way staff in different practice areas and different offices delivered advice to clients. To address this, we worked with the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW to better define the purpose of advice and its place within the other legal services we provide.

This year, we built on this work to develop a strategic advice framework. The goal of the framework is to ensure that Legal Aid NSW advice services are consistent and tailored to clients. It guides lawyers to assess the impact of a client’s legal problem and the client’s vulnerability to decide how much time to spend with the client, what steps to take during the advice service and whether the client would benefit from referral to other legal or non-legal services.

A new legal triage system to help us identify those most in need

We developed a consistent approach to triaging clients according to their needs, with the aim of allowing more disadvantaged clients to see lawyers for face-to-face legal advice about problems we can help with.

We drew on research by the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW into existing triage practices across our organisation. This research told us that clients who are more legally literate and less disadvantaged find it easier to access our face-to-face advice services, whereas some clients who are experiencing significant disadvantage may miss out on these services or wait longer to see a lawyer. The research also told us that there were inconsistent triage practices across our organisation. While some tailoring to local needs is appropriate, inconsistent practices may be confusing for staff and clients, and do not allow a clear understanding of the resources we need in each location.

The triage framework we developed sorts clients at their point of entry to our service based on their legal problem, level of disadvantage or vulnerability, their ability to self-help and the urgency of their legal problem. Our triage framework will be trialled and refined in 2019–20.

Laying the groundwork for an integrated entry point for clients

This year we launched Streamlining Legal Pathways, a joint initiative with LawAccess NSW. Streamlining Legal Pathways seeks to simplify and improve the way that people in NSW get legal help by creating an integrated entry point to the legal assistance sector, with a single telephone number and digital platform, and supported by proper triaging processes.

We engaged Deloitte to help us understand how clients are currently reaching our services. We also worked closely with LawAccess NSW. Our research showed that accessing our services can be confusing for clients, and many clients experience double-handling. Legal Aid NSW currently advertises more than 40 public phone numbers and we answer around 800,000 calls from the public each year. Fifteen percent of calls to LawAccess NSW are from people who have been referred from Legal Aid NSW, and of these, 40 percent are referred back to Legal Aid NSW.

As a result of machinery of government changes that took effect on 1 July 2019, LawAccess NSW joined Legal Aid NSW. In 2019–20, we will focus on integrating LawAccess NSW within Legal Aid NSW and establishing it as the first point of contact for the legal assistance sector in NSW.

We also recognised a need for:

  • consistent and appropriate triage, so that people receive the right level of service at the right time (see above)
  • intuitive digital pathways that can assist clients with less complex legal issues, such as issues relating to fines
  • more integration of forms and customer management systems, so that people only have to tell their stories once, and
  • a single portal that gives clients access to documents and information about their case.

Our clients have told us they want to interact with us online, including clients who experience higher levels of disadvantage.

"I don’t understand people over the telephone. I want to type or chat online so I can read.”
- Legal Aid NSW client, Central Sydney

"I don’t want to have to keep calling the office to see if there are updates … I want to know I’m looking in the right place.”
- Legal Aid NSW client, Liverpool

OBJECTIVE: Strong partnerships

Training the criminal justice sector ahead of major reforms

We delivered training to more than 1,100 lawyers at more than 30 face-to-face sessions across NSW, to prepare them for significant sentencing and parole reforms that came into effect in September 2018.

The amendments significantly altered the sentencing options available in NSW through a new regime of orders and Community Corrections protocols. To support these amendments, we designed a range of training resources and updated our systems to reflect the range of sentencing and parole options now available.

Partners who participated in our training sessions included the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), the Law Society of NSW, the Public Defenders Office, the NSW Bar Association, the NSW Police Force, and the NSW Department of Justice.

National website is a first port of call for victims of family violence

We led the design and delivery of a new national website, Family Violence Law Help, to empower victims of domestic and family violence by providing a wealth of reliable information in one accessible resource.

Our Domestic Violence Unit developed the new website on behalf of National Legal Aid to establish a single starting point for anyone seeking to understand how domestic and family violence intersects with family law, child protection and apprehended domestic violence orders, as well as where to get help Australia-wide.

The website uses illustrations to make complex legal concepts easier to understand. Written in plain English, the website can also be translated into 23 languages. Since its launch it has proven to be a valuable resource for clients, community workers and legal practitioners alike.

The website was developed with input from people who have experienced domestic and family violence, as well as experts from each Family Advocacy and Support Service in Australia. With built-in safety features and advice, the website has the capacity to reach those affected by family violence who cannot readily access legal aid services, particularly those clients in regional and remote areas.

Year ahead iconThe year ahead

  • We will establish LawAccess NSW as the first point of contact for the legal assistance sector in NSW.
  • We will create online guided pathways to support members of the public with questions about fines and simple traffic law matters to self-help.
  • We will progress our work towards creating an online portal for our clients.