Go to content

Annual Report 2018 - 2019

Chair's report

Craig Smith

On behalf of the Board I am pleased to introduce the Annual Report 2018–2019.

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. A summary of the decisions made at each Board meeting is published in this report.

Progressing the Legal Aid NSW Strategic Plan 2018–2023

I would like to congratulate all involved in the successful delivery of the first year of Legal Aid NSW’s Strategic Plan 2018–2023. The Board oversaw this implementation and we were particularly impressed with the dedication, effort and commitment of staff who delivered these important initiatives.

Over the year, the organisation refocused its end-to-end service model to ensure it targets the most disadvantaged people throughout NSW. A Strategic Partnerships Framework was developed to improve how we collaborate with our partners across the justice sector. Also, a new framework was formulated to improve the way Legal Aid NSW supports private lawyers so they can continue to deliver quality legal aid services.

The Board also approved a comprehensive strategic law reform agenda. The agenda will see Legal Aid NSW proactively working with government to influence policies that will reduce systemic disadvantage and improve the operation of the justice system.

Targeting need through our eligibility policies

The first year of the strategic plan involved a wide-ranging review of our eligibility policies, with the newly established Client Eligibility Unit undertaking this work.

Consequently, the Board approved a large number of policy changes over the year. These included changes to our family and criminal law policies to ensure, wherever possible, we assist clients who are at risk of, or experiencing domestic or family violence.

The Board expanded the availability of extended legal assistance for Commonwealth and certain NSW parole proceedings. Extended legal assistance was introduced last year and allows lawyers to assist clients with multiple legal problems in one service rather than through separate services. The Board also approved revisions to the financially associated person test to make it clearer, fairer and more consistent.

Removing barriers so we can assist more clients

The Board approved important changes to Legal Aid NSW’s conflict of interest policy. While continuing to manage the risk of conflict of interest, the revised policy removes unnecessary barriers that previously led to the exclusion of disadvantaged and vulnerable people receiving in-house assistance.

The Board also oversaw the implementation of several strategies aimed at reaching clients who are particularly vulnerable. These included the Domestic and Family Violence Strategy 2016–2018 and Elder Abuse Strategy 2018–2019.

Making processes more efficient

The Board approved a suite of changes to the contributions policy to align better with our Client Service Strategy and support an efficient grants administration process. This involved streamlining the contributions policy so it is clearer, removes inefficient collections and targets those who can afford to contribute.

Reviewing of private lawyer fees

The Board approved an increase in fees for private lawyers undertaking legally aided work under the early appropriate guilty pleas reform as a consequence of additional funding provided for this initiative. However, fee rates for lawyers undertaking other legally aided work remains unchanged and continues to be a significant issue.

In last year’s annual report, I advised of a review underway into fees paid to private lawyers representing legally aided clients. That review is now complete and it is clear that fees need to be increased.

Like all other Australian states and territories, Legal Aid NSW relies on private lawyers to represent the majority of legal aid clients. Payment is generally based on either a daily rate or an hourly rate, depending on the nature of the work. The rates paid in NSW are by far the lowest in Australia. In NSW the fee rates have not increased for 12 years. This situation is not sustainable. The detailed review identified risks to Legal Aid NSW and to the justice system if fees remain at current levels. The issue of providing Legal Aid NSW with additional funding to increase fees is now with the government. In the meantime, we continue to rely on the goodwill of barristers and solicitors who are prepared to undertake legal aid work. I thank those practitioners for their commitment to disadvantaged people.

Managing risk

The Board continued to track our organisation’s performance under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services 2015–2020.

The Board approved the revised Audit and Risk Charter and Internal Audit Charter. The Audit and Risk Committee oversaw several internal audits that included assessment of community legal education information collection, protective security risk assessment and staff movements. The Board also approved the reappointment of Michael Coleman as Chair of the Audit and Risk Committee for the period 23 June 2019 until 23 June 2021.

The Board continued to monitor Legal Aid NSW’s operating budget, financial statements and work, health and safety measures. The Board also appointed new members to the Legal Aid Review Committee.

Special thanks

Thank you to all involved in delivering legal aid services across NSW, including our colleagues in the private profession and legal assistance sector. I particularly acknowledge the staff of Legal Aid NSW for continuing to provide exceptional legal services to our clients.

It has been my pleasure to chair the current Board for the past three years and I thank my fellow Board members for their work. On behalf of the Board I thank Brendan Thomas and his staff for the high-quality assistance they provide. I would also like to acknowledge the outstanding work of the Audit and Risk Committee.

Craig Smith
Chair, Legal Aid NSW