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Annual Report 2019 - 2020

CEO’s report

Brendan Thomas

In an incredibly tough year marked by the worst bushfires on record and the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m pleased to present this Annual Report to you, which displays the incredible strength, resilience and adaptability of Legal Aid NSW staff.

I’d like to congratulate all Legal Aid NSW staff on their extraordinary efforts this year and their continued focus on putting the client at the centre of everything we do.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

Like everyone, the key challenge we faced this year was responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by our Deputy CEO, we responded immediately by setting up a Pandemic Control Centre, which coordinated changes to service delivery and staffing.

As the pandemic escalated, we adopted screening measures to limit the number of people entering our offices. Within a month, most of our services were being delivered remotely and in-person services were restricted to exceptional circumstances.

The practice areas quickly shifted to new ways of service delivery.

We worked closely with the courts, Corrective Services NSW and NSW Police on process changes for criminal law cases. Examples included staff appearing remotely from Legal Aid NSW offices for bail applications and dealing with procedural applications by email. At all times, we ensured the most vulnerable were represented in the most effective way.

As enquiries about family law issues increased, we set up a COVID-19 telephone mediation service. The service allowed parties to mediate issues such as risk of virus transmission to children, border closures, unavailability of contact supervision and restricted attendance in public places.

Usually averaging 1,000 calls each year, our Domestic Violence Unit received over 1,500 calls in the first few months of the pandemic. To manage this significant shift, we increased staffing and support.

With many more people experiencing job insecurity, financial hardship and housing stress, there was a sharp increase in demand for civil law services. In response, we expanded civil law services, providing assistance with tenancy, employment, social security, financial hardship, credit and debt, immigration, and mental health.

For members of the community, we set up a COVID-19 legal information and advice hotline through LawAccess NSW, a web chat function, and produced several factsheets.

Within Legal Aid NSW, almost all staff shifted to working from home. Our corporate services staff worked tirelessly to provide extra IT support, increased bandwidth and an improved virtual private network (VPN).

To manage the drastic change in working conditions, particularly the risk of isolation at home, we set up a daily phone service for managers with our Deputy CEO, ensured teams were meeting regularly, made resources available about working flexibly, and offered counselling services remotely.

As we moved towards the easing of restrictions in the community, we established a Recovery Planning Group, led by senior staff. Through consultation with staff and external agencies, the group developed a dynamic framework for staff, client, and stakeholder contact during the pandemic.

Responding to the bushfires

Over summer, we experienced our worst bushfire season on record, with 6.5 million hectares burnt and almost 2,500 houses destroyed. We responded by establishing a Disaster Response Legal Service. With our justice partners, we led the delivery of frontline, statewide legal services almost immediately.

Sixty-five of our solicitors volunteered to assist, which included staff personally impacted by the fires. Many travelled long distances at night and on weekends to attend community meetings and recovery centres in remote and fire-ravaged communities. Through their efforts, we delivered over 1,000 legal services, deployed solicitors to recovery centres over 180 days, and reached 2,500 community members through community legal education.

Continuing a client-first approach

We progressed important initiatives to improve how our clients engage with us. We continued our integration with LawAccess NSW to create a single point of entry for clients so they receive the right service at the right time. We successfully launched a Grants Tracker to help our clients track the status of their grant application. And for those in the community keen to access legal help online, we launched guided pathways about fines and traffic offences.

We also launched our Best practice standards for representing Aboriginal clients that will provide guidance to both in-house and private lawyers on the level of knowledge and skills they need to provide effective legal representation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients.

Work and Development Order Scheme wins the Premier’s Award for Tackling Longstanding Social Challenges

The Work and Development Order (WDO) Scheme won the Premier’s Award for Tackling Longstanding Social Challenges. A first of its kind, the WDO scheme is a partnership between Legal Aid NSW, the Department of Communities and Justice, and Revenue NSW. It allows vulnerable people with unpaid fines to clear their debts by participating in activities that benefit them and their community, including drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health treatment, and volunteer work. Since 2012, the scheme has cleared over $217 million in debt (unlikely to ever be recovered) and initiated over 164,000 WDO activities.

Celebrating 40 years of legal service delivery

We paused to celebrate and reflect on 40 years of Legal Aid NSW. Opening our doors a few days before Christmas in 1979, what was then known as the Legal Services Commission was more than a law office. It was a triumph of social justice.

It brought together talented and dedicated lawyers, support staff, social workers and others who shared a commitment to serve those most in need. Today, Legal Aid NSW is rightly acknowledged as a leader in legal excellence and is the largest provider of legal assistance anywhere in Australia.

Joined by the NSW Attorney General and other dignitaries, the celebration offered an opportunity to thank our staff, both past and present, and our partners in the justice sector that included members of the private profession, Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), community legal sector, and other advocacy services.

At the celebration, the NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman committed an additional $88 million over four years to increase the fees we pay to private lawyers. By far the single biggest injection of funds to Legal Aid NSW, the increase in fees will go some way to better reflect the time private lawyers spend preparing cases and representing clients in our matters.
I thank the Attorney General and the NSW Government for this funding.

Improving our engagement with private lawyers

We continued our work on responding to concerns raised by private lawyers by developing a comprehensive framework to improve our relationship and engagement with them. Over the coming year, we will simplify our panels process, continue to make our grants process more efficient, and provide support and training so private lawyers can continue to deliver high-quality legal aid services.

Reaching the community

Although in-person contact was restricted this year, we continued to deliver community legal education to the public online. We also launched the Stop Public Threats campaign aimed at empowering diverse communities and stamping out public threats of violence. The easy-to-understand video and website resources will help ensure communities and individuals are aware of how to report threats of violence. The resources also highlight other protections under the law for anyone who experiences hate or discrimination because of who they are.

Developing our leaders

We continued to develop our leaders, with 43 of our senior managers participating in our LEAD program, where they developed their leadership capabilities and skills to manage change and influence culture. We also piloted our career pathways program, which provides staff with resources and tools to help them identify different paths for career progression.

Making our processes more efficient

We continued making our processes more efficient. Significantly, we completed implementation of our Client and Case Management System, which manages client information more efficiently and will allow us to transition to a paper-light office. Support was provided to staff to prepare for this major change, including training 1,000 staff on the new system. We introduced robotics to ensure our business systems are promptly updated with the location of our clients in custody, and we continued reforming our grants processes so we make faster decisions about grants of legal aid, resulting in us now processing applications in days rather than weeks.

Special thanks

I would like to thank our partners in the community and the private legal profession for their work this year. I would also like to acknowledge the work of our Board, particularly our Chair Craig Smith.

Most importantly, I would like to thank our staff. I have been enormously impressed by the resilience, professionalism and dedication you have shown in response to the challenges of this year. You have continued to put our clients at the centre of what we do, despite changes to nearly every part of your everyday work, and during a period that has been emotionally difficult for many people. Your efforts mean that our clients have been able to get the help they need to ensure a just and equitable NSW legal system. Your adaptability to change has also produced ongoing improvement to our systems. As an organisation we are more flexible and responsive, not just to these unique times but also to future challenges. I would like to thank all of you for your tremendous efforts.

Brendan Thomas
CEO, Legal Aid NSW