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Annual Report 2018 - 2019

CEO's report

Brendan Thomas

I am pleased to present the Legal Aid NSW Annual Report 2018–2019.

The work of our lawyers and other dedicated staff is varied, and often difficult. The number of disadvantaged people who need our help continues to grow. Increasingly, our clients are seeking assistance with multiple complex legal and non-legal problems, and the resources we draw on are finite. So we are finding innovative ways to serve our clients and keep them at the centre of all that we do. We are also working to build a better, fairer justice system in which our clients’ voices are heard.

This year we played an important role in implementing criminal justice reforms in NSW. We ensured there was continuity of representation for clients charged with serious criminal matters under the early appropriate guilty pleas reform, and we led training of more than 1,100 lawyers across NSW ahead of major sentencing and parole reforms.

We also heard from 1,400 clients through our largest ever client satisfaction survey, in which three in four clients told us they were highly satisfied with our service. I thank our lawyers and our partners in the private legal profession for their commitment to ensuring our clients receive quality legal services regardless of their means.

What follows is a snapshot of some of our key achievements this year.

Overseeing the Legal Aid NSW Strategic Plan 2018–2023

I proudly oversaw the first year of the Legal Aid NSW Strategic Plan 2018– 2023. I congratulate all our staff for their efforts to deliver the important projects that underpin this plan. We met many milestones this year, ranging from the development of a strategic law reform agenda, amendments to our eligibility policies to target those most in need, digital initiatives and updates to internal processes to better support staff.

Above all, we immersed ourselves in the experiences of our clients.

We thoroughly reviewed the way clients access our services. Our clients told us that contacting Legal Aid NSW can be confusing, and some clients contact us multiple times before they reach the right service. We also struggle to answer the 800,000 calls made to more than 40 published phone numbers each year. A significant proportion of these calls involve referrals to and from LawAccess NSW. We know we can improve our clients’ experience. That is why LawAccess NSW will join Legal Aid NSW on 1 July 2019. This integration will result in one phone number for legal assistance in NSW. It will also mean our clients tell their story once and receive the right level of assistance at the right time.

To ensure we reach those most in need we also reviewed our end-to-end client service model. Commencing next year, our revised model will clearly differentiate between universal services that are available to everyone, and more individualised and intensive services, which will target those most in need, and where we will direct most of our resources.

Responding to the needs of our clients in northwest NSW, we opened satellite offices in Bourke and Walgett. Each satellite office has a dedicated Aboriginal community liaison officer and in-house lawyers provide criminal, family and civil law services in the region. Due to the small number of private lawyers available to do work in the far west, we expanded our in-house services to that region by establishing an ongoing criminal law presence in Broken Hill.

We also introduced a range of changes to ensure that people who are experiencing, or at risk of, domestic and family violence have access to legal services in line with the Legal Aid NSW Domestic and Family Violence Strategy 2016–2018. We also developed a new Domestic and Family Violence Strategy 2019–2020 to guide our work in the coming year.

Excelling in the delivery of services

We welcomed research by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research that found Legal Aid NSW in-house criminal lawyers were more efficient than private lawyers funded to do the same work. The findings are testament to the commitment of our criminal lawyers and the important role they play in making efficient and effective legal representation available to vulnerable clients.

Recognising our track record of delivering services to older people, the Commonwealth provided us with funding to establish a specialist Elder Abuse Service on the NSW Central Coast. The service will respond to financial, physical and psychological abuse of vulnerable older people by providing legal representation and advice, as well as non-legal support.

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.

We also launched a national online training program for family lawyers across Australia seeking to work as independent children’s lawyers. More than 300 lawyers have already registered for the program.

Investing in our people

A record number of staff participated in the NSW People Matter Employee Survey. We were pleased to hear that staff were highly engaged with their work, and that in every key area measured – engagement with work, senior managers, communication, diversity and inclusion – we outperformed the public sector average. Although the results were generally positive, each office identified areas for improvement and corresponding actions.

We continued to prioritise the health and wellbeing of our staff by launching Being Well, which represents a substantial long-term investment in workplace wellbeing. Through initiatives in four key areas, the Being Well program will ensure that our environment is physically safe, that we support the mental health and wellbeing of our staff, that we promote flexible work and that we support late-career employees. We also trained mental health firstaid officers to provide informal initial support to employees in the workplace and connect them to formal support.

We continued to invest in our talent. To respond to the increasing number of senior staff being appointed to the judiciary and senior positions in other agencies, we formalised a new approach for identifying, developing and mobilising talent in Legal Aid NSW. Together with this, we congratulated our first round of graduates from the LEAD program, which trains aspiring managers to be our future leaders.

We finalised an Aboriginal Employment and Career Development Strategy that aims to lift the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees to 11 percent. The strategy also identifies avenues for mentoring and support for hiring managers, and ensures our recruitment processes are culturally appropriate.

We continued to make our operations more efficient. We automated parts of our grants processes, resulting in faster decision-making and more certainty for our staff, private lawyers and clients. We completed a detailed process review of our administrative functions. And we commenced implementing our new Client and Case Management System, which will centralise information and allow us to transition to a paper-light office.

Working with our partners

We continued to work closely with our partners, including the private legal profession, the health sector, community legal centres, the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) and other service providers.

Each year, private lawyers undertake a significant proportion of our work and our partnership with them is crucial to delivering quality legal services across NSW. We completed several projects to support this partnership. We reviewed our processes for appointing lawyers to our panels, sought funding to increase the fees we pay to private lawyers, started processing grants of aid more efficiently and identified ways to provide more meaningful support to private lawyers.

We created a Strategic Partnerships Framework to influence the legislative, policy and program environment in which we work. We established formal partnerships with NSW Police, Family and Community Services NSW, the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ ACT), the NSW Department of Justice, Corrective Services NSW and the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department.

We continued our collaboration with Victoria Legal Aid, releasing the Cross- Border Justice Report, which outlined how our two commissions will improve access to legal assistance for our clients along the NSW-Victorian border.

Special thanks

I thank our staff, and our partners in the private legal profession and community legal sector, for the work they do every day to address injustice and inequality. Their work is not easy, but it is worthwhile. It improves the lives of our clients and it helps us shape a fairer community. I would also like to acknowledge the work of our Board, particularly our Chair Craig Smith, and members of the Legal Aid NSW executive for guiding and supporting the important work we do.

Brendan Thomas
CEO, Legal Aid NSW