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Annual Report 2019 - 2020

Significant events affecting our service delivery

Our response to COVID-19

In response to directives issued by the NSW Government on March 24, 2020, all Legal Aid NSW offices were temporarily closed, and most staff moved to remote working from home where it was practicable to do so.

We established a Pandemic Control Centre (PCC) to manage and develop organisational changes. The PCC continues to meet on a daily basis to monitor events, brief and advise the CEO and Executive on service delivery and workforce needs and challenges. The PCC developed a service disruption plan to respond to COVID-19 issues, including where there are possible infections in the workplace.

We developed a framework for client and visitor contact based on NSW Health advice. The framework takes a phased approach depending on COVID-19 risk in a particular area or region. This allowed us to remain flexible in setting the restriction levels for each office and regularly assess the risks in each area or region.

We worked closely with legal and non-legal service providers to continue to provide access to legal services throughout the pandemic. We worked with private law firms and other legal colleagues to manage cases and ease pressure on court lists by coming to consent positions and agreeing on directions ahead of time. We worked with Corrective Services NSW and NSW Police in response to changes to existing processes and procedures.

We negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding with Courts and Tribunal Services to manage the risks in court rooms and to ensure the safety of our staff and clients in these locations.

Shift in service delivery

The shift in service delivery in response to COVID-19 impacted some areas of our work more than others. For example, the Domestic Violence Unit took over 1,500 calls and 960 email referrals between March 4, 2020 and June 30, 2020, which is a significant increase in enquiries compared to prior years having an average of 1,000 calls per year.

Demand for specialist civil law services also saw a sharp increase in a range of areas of law. As at June 30, 2020, Legal Aid NSW had provided 938 services to clients in COVID-19 related civil law matters, covering topics such as employment (33.6%), immigration (30.2%), housing (8.3%) and consumer (7.9%). Approximately 23 percent of these services were provided in regional NSW.

We discontinued drop-in clinics at our offices altogether, something we had planned but expedited as a result of the pandemic. We developed a direct referral pathway from LawAccess NSW into our practice areas for clients who required advice or assistance.

Our outreach and specialist services modified their service delivery methods to phone or video to ensure that regional and remote communities continued to be able to access legal services.

We continued to provide legal representation and duty services in line with court requirements in relevant jurisdictions. For example, we appeared remotely via phone or audio-visual link (AVL) and received court papers electronically in some matters. When such arrangements were not practicable, or the vulnerability of a client required it, solicitors appeared in person to represent their clients.

Contributing to case law about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on bail

Gray (a pseudonym) v R [2020] NSWSC 390

Legal Aid NSW acted on behalf of a young Aboriginal person who had been convicted of a serious offence and was on remand awaiting hearing of an appeal against that conviction. We applied for bail on the young person’s behalf in the Supreme Court, arguing that exceptional circumstances existed to warrant the granting of bail.

The court accepted that the potential delay in hearing the appeal, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, was exceptional, particularly where such delay could mean that the young person would end up serving most, if not all, of his jail time before the appeal decision could be determined. In granting bail, the court also accepted that, as an Aboriginal person, his ties to the community were as strong as one’s ties to land could ever be.

Due to the increased enquiries about family law and parenting arrangements, a COVID-19 telephone mediation model was developed and implemented in April 2020. This model involves a two-hour streamlined mediation format to allow parties to mediate any family law issues related to COVID-19 without going to court.

The mediations were focused on practical solutions and dealt with COVID-19 issues such as risk of virus transmission to children and others, border closures, unavailability of contact supervision and restricted attendance in public places rather than renegotiating parenting arrangements. More complex matters were referred to Legal Aid NSW’s other mediation programs.

Around 90 percent of mediations held have resulted in full or partial agreement, and some matters have resolved prior to mediation. The scheme operates as an Early Resolution Assistance (ERA) service, a low cost service with streamlined processes, which enables a quick turn-around for clients.

Supporting NSW parents through the pandemic

One father, Michael*, already had court orders in place that allowed him to spend time with his children, who lived with their mother. However, Michael’s ex-partner stopped allowing the children to spend time with him because she believed they might be at risk from COVID-19. We were able to support Michael through telephone mediation and as a result, the mother agreed that he could start seeing his children again.

In another family, one parent had lost their job due to COVID-19, and the two parents could not agree on whether their pre-schooler should continue attending pre-school or should instead stay at home with the out-of-work parent. We encouraged the parents to participate in telephone mediation and supported them to reach an agreement within half an hour.

In both cases, we conducted mediations within 14 days of the parents’ first contact with Legal Aid NSW, helping these families resolve their legal issues quickly, and reducing pressure on our court system.

* Not his real name

Community legal education resources

We developed a range of COVID-19 factsheets for clients and stakeholders, which included topics like domestic violence, parenting arrangements, and child support and family payments. Four tip sheets were created for family law practitioners including topics related to appearing remotely, parenting orders, and meeting with children via technology. The guide developed for children’s lawyers, Good practice guide for lawyers – meeting with children via technology, was made available on the national website for independent children’s lawyers.

Factsheets were also developed on the impact of Public Health Orders, border closures, mandatory quarantine, social security, housing and evictions, employment, and money worries. Three tip sheets were created for community workers who regularly work with refugees around topics like Centrelink, visas, travel restrictions and citizenship processing.

Resources were developed on topics like apprehended domestic violence orders and for legal practitioners and community workers who work with young people.

The Community Legal Education Branch produced a series of COVID-19 related webinar and podcast content for community and health workers on a range of legal issues. Community and health workers attending the webinars had the opportunity to ask questions directly to solicitors about emerging legal issues facing vulnerable people.

The most popular topic was fines and Work and Development Orders. The Community Legal Education Branch collaborated with staff from the Work and Development Order Service to deliver a session attended by 282 people, an increase of almost 100 from the previous attendance record for webinars presented by Legal Aid NSW.

Taking Law Week online

We were unable to deliver our regular Law Week events in May 2020 due to COVID-19. The original plan had been to present in-person sessions at libraries across NSW on the topics of Neighbours and the Law and Your Money and the Law.

However, with libraries closed and gathering not possible, Legal Aid NSW moved its Law Week resources online to ensure that NSW libraries had content to share that would support the community to get legal help. We created a video and podcast that was shared by libraries across NSW via their social media and websites. The resources help individuals find legal information and explain where to get legal assistance during the pandemic.

Changes to Legal Aid NSW policies

We made several changes to Legal Aid NSW policies in response to the impact of COVID-19 on disadvantaged and vulnerable people. These policy changes included:

  • Changes to our means test to ensure people experiencing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19 could access legal aid.
  • A new discretion under the means test to treat any lump sum Centrelink payments made to households during the pandemic as an excluded asset for the purposes of the means test.
  • A recognition that the coronavirus supplement payment is not a windfall for individuals.

Many of our clients, especially parents in care and protection matters, experienced difficulties applying for legal aid due to the COVID-19 restrictions. These clients are often not connected to the internet or find it difficult to complete the financial information required. To ensure some of our most vulnerable clients could continue to access legal aid for their care matters, parents in primary care proceedings were exempted from the means test for the duration of the pandemic.

Supporting our staff and ensuring their safety

Throughout the pandemic we communicated regularly with all Legal Aid NSW staff and stakeholders via email, phone and video conferences, webinars, meetings, and a dedicated intranet site to feature important work, health and safety information and to house all resources.

Support was given to all areas of our business to manage roles and functions that were able to work remotely or, if not reasonably practical to do so, to support those functions continuing to work in our offices.

Webinars were regularly held to train and update staff on a range of evolving legal topics such as Centrelink entitlements, immigration, fines and Work and Development Orders, housing, and police powers. The Community Legal Education Branch also conducted training with Legal Aid NSW staff to educate them in presenting community legal education remotely on virtual platforms.

A COVID-19 risk register, safety plan, and updated resources were developed. COVID-19 site coordinators were established at all regional offices and Central Sydney to ensure that COVID-safe practices were implemented. Work, health and safety resources were developed to assist the site coordinators. A range of operational and client-based resources were also created to support employees who were required to attend courts or tribunals.

Staff were equipped with the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and resources in our offices, and at other worksites such as courts. Increased cleaning and disinfecting services were also arranged at offices.

A flexible workforce

Over 800 staff moved to working from home in response to COVID-19. We made several improvements to our network including upgrades to our internet bandwidth and the deployment of a new virtual private network (VPN) solution.

We deployed Microsoft Teams to all staff which proved invaluable for staff staying connected visually in online meetings, informal team catch-ups and one-on-one discussions. We also introduced tools to allow staff to securely share large documents with external partners.

A range of tip sheets was prepared for staff covering topics including connectivity and how to best use technology when working remotely. We also developed a suite of factsheets to assist staff appearing remotely in courts and tribunals, taking instructions from clients remotely, and accessing documents electronically.

We provided guidelines and support to our managers and staff to help them manage remote working and we launched a Healthy Body, Healthy Mind and Healthy Soul campaign to support the physical and psychological needs of staff.

Providing immigration advice to a victim of family violence

Mariam* held a temporary visa which would expire in September 2020. She had separated from her husband and there had been family violence. She wanted to fly home as soon as possible but was unable to due to COVID-19 restrictions. Mariam wanted to know whether her visa could be cancelled now that her relationship had ended, and how she could stay in Australia legally until she was able to leave. We gave advice to help Mariam navigate both issues, including that her visa should not be cancelled in these circumstances, and about the range of visas for which she could apply if she was unable to leave Australia by September.

* Not her real name

Reviewing processes to understand what works well and what we can do better

We have regularly monitored and reviewed our performance through staff surveys and feedback. We used the data from these surveys to inform our decisions in relation to changes we have made to service delivery and the operation of our workforce. We are now considering the changes we will make, as we transition to a less restrictive environment, in order to retain the gains made in making our services more accessible and our workforce more flexible.

Our response to the bushfires

The 2019–2020 bushfire season was the worst on record. The scale, duration, and intensity were unprecedented, affecting many individuals, families, and communities across NSW. Legal issues that arose for these communities included insurance, disaster welfare, tenancy and housing, credit and debt, family law, and crime.

Directing our services to those most in need

Previously, the Legal Aid NSW disaster response work was localised, with solicitors deployed on a short-term basis to provide onsite legal help at a single recovery centre. The scale and spread of this year’s bushfires and sheer number of communities affected required us to quickly mobilise resources and provide a rapid, statewide response.

Our experience in managing disasters proved invaluable in adapting our existing model into the Disaster Response Legal Service (DRLS). We harnessed the expertise and knowledge of our staff and expanded the service within days to provide targeted, high-quality legal services.

The DRLS adopted a multi-channel approach. This included:

  • establishing a dedicated bushfire legal advice phone line staffed by Legal Aid NSW solicitors
  • promoting a 1800 helpline operating on weekdays from 9am to 5pm at LawAccess NSW
  • launching a new website with resources and news
  • Legal Aid NSW staff attending disaster recovery centres and recovery assistance points to give frontline legal assistance, and
  • attending community recovery meetings to provide legal information and education.

The DRLS staff gave advice about legal rights and how to assert those rights. Many clients were suddenly faced with unexpected trauma, homelessness and acute financial hardship. The DRLS model ensured people who were already vulnerable, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people experiencing family violence, people with disability, and children, received more intensive socio-legal services from legal and allied professional staff.

We provided over 1,000 legal services across NSW and reached 2,500 community members through our community legal education.

The most common issue arising was insurance disputes, comprising 45 percent of total legal services, followed by disaster welfare (12%), tenancy (8%), credit and debt (8%), and neighbour disputes (6%).

“There are certain people I will remember for the rest of my life, and you are one of them. You gave me comfort and help on one of the worst days of my life and for that, I will always be most grateful.”

– Client assisted by the Disaster Response Legal Service NSW

Highlights of the Disaster Response Legal Service NSW

Helping clients with insurance claims

Our client was evacuating when she had her car stolen along with her belongings. She had been packing her car with the keys inside, and while she turned to say goodbye to her daughter, a man with a tomahawk ran towards the car, jumped in and drove off. She phoned her insurer and was told she had no claim as the keys were inside the car when it was stolen. We reviewed her policy and learned that this interpretation of her exclusion clause was incorrect. We lodged an internal dispute with the insurer. Within a day we were contacted by the insurer who advised that they would allow the claim to proceed.

Working with our partners

We led the NSW legal assistance sector response to the bushfires by bringing together key partners to coordinate legal service delivery – LawAccess NSW, Community Legal Centres NSW, Justice Connect, Financial Rights Legal Centre, Welfare Rights Centre NSW, Tenants’ Union, Law Society of NSW, NSW Bar Association, Ashurst and the Australian Pro Bono Centre.

Clients requiring advice outside the expertise of Legal Aid NSW and community legal centres (such as commercial, property or planning law advice) were referred to pro bono assistance, which was coordinated by Justice Connect through their award-winning online pro bono portal. Justice Connect made 32 referrals to private lawyers for pro bono assistance.

We worked with community legal centres to maximise service delivery, for example, in conjunction with the Financial Rights Legal Centre, we provided training to Shoalcoast Community Legal Centre so that staff could assist clients at recovery centres. Representatives from Legal Aid NSW and community legal centres attended community meetings across the state.

We continued to engage with regulators, industry stakeholders, and the Insurance Council of Australia on systemic issues arising from the bushfires that disproportionately impact vulnerable members of the community.

Supporting our staff

Sixty-five Legal Aid NSW solicitors supported the bushfire recovery effort. Many travelled long distances to attend community meetings and recovery centres in remote communities. Many regional solicitors were personally impacted by the fires and other staff cancelled leave to assist.

To support these staff, we provided trauma-informed practice training, full safety briefings including additional first aid items, current practice resources and daily debriefing. Subject matter experts were available for assistance with complex legal issues.

Throughout the bushfire response, we communicated with staff working on the recovery effort through regular emails, detailed briefings, regular practice meetings, and via other internal and external publications.

Weekly reports on services delivered during the bushfires were provided to the Legal Aid NSW Executive, the NSW Attorney General’s Office, and other stakeholders.

Legal Aid NSW Civil Law Director Meredith Osborne, Legal Aid NSW lawyer Sharlene Naismith and Legal Aid NSW CEO Brendan Thomas.

Legal Aid NSW Civil Law Director Meredith Osborne, Legal Aid NSW lawyer Sharlene Naismith and Legal Aid NSW CEO Brendan Thomas at the disaster recovery centre in Ulladulla.