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Annual Report 2019 - 2020

Chair's report

Craig Smith

On behalf of the Board, I am pleased to introduce the Annual Report 2019–2020.

I know I speak for my colleagues on the Board in saying that we are honoured to serve Legal Aid NSW. This year we welcomed two new Board members, Alison McRobert and Brett McGrath.

The Board establishes the broad policies and strategic plans that we think will best meet the statutory functions of Legal Aid NSW and address the duties to be observed in the provision of legal aid. The members of the Board bring a diverse range of backgrounds, expertise and experience to this role. A summary of the decisions made by the Board is published in this report.

Helping people most in need access their legal rights

Legal Aid NSW helps those most in need access their legal rights by providing a range of services including advice, assistance and legal representation. Our clients include the poor, the vulnerable and the friendless. Unfortunately, the importance of our work is often not understood in the community. According to the United Nations, a common challenge for all 125 countries that guarantee the right to legal aid, is a lack of public support.

This most commonly manifests itself as negative publicity around high profile criminal cases. The nature of the offences and the lack of community support can extract a personal cost from the lawyers working on these matters. This important, albeit sometimes unpopular, work is not limited to criminal law. Almost all lawyers representing adults in care matters are funded by Legal Aid NSW. These lawyers work towards keeping families safely together. When this can’t happen, they ensure the parents understand their legal obligations and are given an opportunity to engage in the process. In civil law, Legal Aid NSW is the only specialist service provider for mental health advocacy services. Our lawyers represent people in mental health inquiries and guardianship matters, that determine not only the person’s liberty, but also their fundamental right to determine care and treatment.

On behalf of the Board, I would like to thank both our in-house and panel lawyers for conducting this sometimes thankless work. Your work is essential for any just and fair society and is crucial in upholding the rule of law.

Improvements for private lawyers undertaking legal aid work

In November 2019, Legal Aid NSW celebrated its 40th anniversary. Staff joined dignitaries and alumni at Parliament House to mark this happy occasion. At the celebration the NSW Attorney General, the Hon. Mark Speakman SC, announced additional funding of $88 million over four years to increase fees for private lawyers undertaking legal aid work in state matters. This is the first increase in fees for over 12 years. I thank the Attorney General for his support of the case for additional funds and the NSW Government for the provision of these funds.

Without the private profession, Legal Aid NSW could not meet demand in regional and remote areas, manage conflicts of interest, and support solicitor-of-choice policies. Each year, private lawyers appear in about 70 percent of our ongoing case work and 40 percent of our duty services. This year, the Board approved a comprehensive framework for private lawyers that sets out a process for engaging more meaningfully with the private profession. This framework will simplify our panels process, make it easier for private lawyers to do business with us, and proactively support panel members to deliver high-quality legal aid services.

Recognising the work of the Disaster Response Legal Service

At the end of 2019, Legal Aid NSW mobilised the Disaster Response Legal Service to assist communities devastated by bushfires. To acknowledge the commitment of staff impacted by the bushfires, the Board proposed to hold our April meeting in Nowra. Unfortunately that did not occur because of the intervening COVID-19 pandemic. In March, with the support of the Board, I wrote to all staff thanking them for their commitment and invited direct contact with me as to any matter relevant to supporting staff and our clients during this crisis.

The Board recognises the excellent work of Legal Aid NSW staff as well as the outstanding contribution of community legal centres, Justice Connect, and the pro bono services of the private profession in assisting people in need of help.

COVID-19 pandemic response

I would like to thank all staff of Legal Aid NSW for your commitment during this pandemic. I appreciate the many challenges you are facing in seeking to provide your usual outstanding service.

The Legal Aid NSW Board has been briefed on the changes made to protect staff and to provide continuity of service during the pandemic. These include the establishment of a pandemic control centre, changes to the methods of service delivery, changes to staff management, work, health and safety initiatives, contingency plans, and liaison with courts and other agencies. The Board approved a change to the means test to ensure that the temporary changes in Centrelink payments did not adversely impact access to legal aid.

Legal Aid NSW Strategic Plan

I am pleased to say that despite the current environment, most of the actions outlined in the Legal Aid NSW Strategic Plan for 2019–2020 were delivered. The Board monitored the progress of 45 projects under this ambitious plan at each meeting.

The Board has approved a number of initiatives including:

  • increases in fees paid to private lawyers undertaking legal aid work
  • changes to Legal Aid NSW eligibility and means test policies to ensure older people at risk of abuse can obtain legal assistance
  • changes to the means test for the family law property mediation pilot to ensure the service reached those most in need, and
  • changes to the means test in primary care and protection matters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Special thanks

I have been very impressed with the leadership shown by Brendan Thomas, Monique Hitter and the Executive team during a difficult year. I appreciate the outstanding support they have provided to the Board. I also appreciate the resilience and adaptability shown by Legal Aid NSW staff in response to the huge changes caused by the pandemic.

I wish our staff and our partners all the best in the delivery of legal services for 2020–2021.

Craig Smith
Chair, Legal Aid NSW