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Annual Report 2020 - 2021

CEO’s report

Brendan Thomas

Gawaymbahnha malayarr. As a proud Wiradjuri man, I acknowledge the ancestors, the Elders past, present and emerging from across our ancient land and where Legal Aid NSW has its footprints – on the country of the Wiradjuri, the Dharawhal, the Darkinjung, the Yuin, the Kamilaroi, Bundjalung, Gumbangirr, Biripi, Awabakal, Dharug, Gadigal, Paakindji, Ngemba and Dhungutti.

I have had the privilege of leading Legal Aid NSW since May 2017 and it is with great pride that I present Legal Aid NSW’s Annual Report for 2020–2021. The report details the significant challenges we have faced in maintaining accessible and high-quality client services while ensuring our staff are supported.

COVID-19 brought more change into our workplace, our families and our communities than any of us have seen in our lifetimes.  Work at Legal Aid NSW now looks very different – we have simply been unable to work like we did before. The quick assessments of risk to staff and clients and rapid refashioning of our services made in early 2020 have become entrenched adaptations.

Ensuring that legal aid is “readily available and easily accessible to disadvantaged people throughout NSW” is more challenging than ever. Maintaining our focus on putting our clients at the centre of everything we do has required an abundance of care and creativity from staff. We are connecting with clients, colleagues and courts via phone, Teams or Zoom, and while we have embraced these innovations, the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on some of the difficulties we face in creating and maintaining strong mechanisms for accessing legal aid.

Lockdowns and the switch to digital service provision immediately impacted on the accessibility of legal aid services, exacerbated digital divides, and in some cases compromised due process. We have been unable to hold face-to-face outreach events and community legal education. Our intensive, relationship focused, place-based outreach to communities had to stop, along with the ability to monitor the delivery of justice by police and other service providers.

We, along with the rest of the sector, have had to respond to increases in the frequency and severity of domestic and family violence, and navigate how to maintain contact with and assist people deprived of liberty due to lockdowns. This has put pressure on all of us – the clients we assist, our partners, community legal centres, courts and tribunals, and the NSW Government.

Despite this, Legal Aid NSW has not skipped a beat – we have not stopped providing services, and our dedicated, passionate staff have not stopped thinking about how to do their best by our clients. Staff responded to the ongoing changes with grace, patience, creativity, and good humour – Legal Aid NSW has the best and most dedicated people you can find.

We’ve come through the past year a more resilient, stronger organisation that is better equipped for the future. I will now highlight some of Legal Aid NSW’s key achievements over the past year.

Our response to COVID-19

Legal Aid NSW continued to benefit from the comprehensive response to COVID-19 developed in early 2020, thanks to the tireless work of Deputy CEO Monique Hitter and the Pandemic Control Centre (PCC), which coordinates our response to the imposition and easing of restrictions, engages in high-level problem solving and communicates the outcomes to our staff and external stakeholders about our strategies and responses to COVID-19.

I have been continually impressed in the utility and flexibility of the PCC-developed Framework for Client Contact during COVID-19 as a decision-making and communication tool. The PCC monitored and reviewed arrangements in accordance with advice from NSW Health and Public Health Orders and provided advice to ground my decisions as to how each office should operate. This was some of the most challenging work in the organisation and I felt ably supported by this talented group of hardworking and considered leaders.

At the time of writing, Legal Aid NSW had again closed its doors to the public until further notice following the NSW Government’s announcement of stay-at-home orders. The majority of Legal Aid NSW staff were working from home, except for some essential functions that cannot be completed from home, including court attendance and mail services.

These measures have been effective in keeping our clients and staff safe and are flexible enough to ensure that we can maintain our critical functions and our services to our clients.

Sexual harassment and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace

I take a strong stance against sexual harassment and unacceptable behaviour. Engendering a culture where everyone feels safe, valued, and respected in the workplace is of paramount importance to me. This commitment is shared by Legal Aid NSW’s Board and Executive.

This year we drafted new sexual harassment and unacceptable behaviour policies which set out Legal Aid NSW’s zero-tolerance approach. Our next steps are to consult with staff and the Public Service Association, and then develop resources to assist us to respond appropriately if such conduct arises.

Bushfire and flood response

I’m incredibly proud of the leading role Legal Aid NSW has played in coordinating legal responses to disasters over the last 18 months. The agility with which the Disaster Response Legal Service (DRLS) mobilised Legal Aid NSW solicitors to provide advice to disaster affected communities, coordinated with community legal centres, Service NSW and Resilience NSW, and harnessed support from the private profession and Justice Connect was truly impressive.

The development of a scalable disaster response service model meant that the DRLS was immediately able to respond when heavy rainfall caused major flooding across NSW in March 2021. Responsive and flexible legal service delivery is increasingly important to respond to more frequent, destructive weather events.

A new home for LawAccess NSW at Legal Aid NSW

Driven by a dedication to streamline access to legal assistance, Legal Aid NSW commenced integrating LawAccess NSW into its operations in 2020.

The aim of this integration was to ensure LawAccess NSW becomes the first port of call for people needing legal assistance and advice, and that clients needing ongoing assistance are seamlessly referred into Legal Aid NSW – minimising confusion, effort, and distress for clients. This transition has been smooth, and we are now assisting people via webchat, an increasing number of self-help options, and clients are being triaged into Legal Aid NSW using e-referrals. This is helping us target our services to those who need them the most.

Roll out of the triage framework

We introduced a consistent triage framework across all of our offices and LawAccess NSW. We started to see the benefits in prioritising disadvantaged clients and reducing wait times for these clients to get access to legal advice and assistance. I look forward to seeing a shift in the clients we provide assistance to and the work we assist with, ensuring that our most intensive services are provided to those at most disadvantage.

Flexible working practices

Central to our ability to maintain high service standards and functionality has been the implementation of flexible working practices at Legal Aid NSW in November 2020.

Challenging long-held assumptions of what it means to ‘show up’ in the workplace, the democratisation of access to flexible work options through an “if not, why not” approach, and an emphasis on trust and connectedness, has led to a cultural shift within Legal Aid NSW. In June 2021, 1,021 employees who regularly work flexibly had submitted a flexible work arrangement request form, of which 863 had been approved.

I’m particularly grateful to Human Resources for developing and implementing a best practice flexible work program in consultation with our staff and the Public Service Association that leads the public sector, and to the Information and Communications Technology Division in swiftly responding to the increased demand for technological assistance and equipment.

Family Law Blueprint

This year we completed complex, introspective work into the strengths of our family law practice and opportunities to realign our practices towards our most disadvantaged clients. The result of this analysis and extensive and productive consultation is the Family Law Blueprint, which sets out the future direction of our family law practice and focuses on making families safe and functional.

I would like to thank all staff involved in shaping this important work, which aims to shift our orientation towards providing more culturally safe services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients, more collaborative early intervention work, and identifying ways to strengthen the care and protection practice. I look forward to seeing the results of this work in the coming years.

Digital client initiatives – Grants Tracker, webchat, guided pathways

The Client Service Unit is leading some of the most transformative work being undertaken at Legal Aid NSW. They are focused on making improvements to the way people access legal aid services and expanding digital service offerings. This future-focused work responds to what our clients say about how they want to engage with us.

The last year has seen increased uptake of the improved Grants Tracker, the introduction of webchat as a new way to obtain legal information, and the development of guided pathways to resolve common legal matters for those who can self-help. This work sets the foundations for the introduction of a digital client portal in 2022, enabling clients to track their legal matters on their smartphones and receive timely information from us.

Focus on private lawyers

Private lawyers provide approximately half of all Legal Aid NSW services and are crucial enablers of our ability to deliver legal aid efficiently and effectively across the state.

In 2020–2021, Legal Aid NSW developed a framework for engaging effectively with private lawyers to support, drive and monitor quality. This work resulted in consolidating 14 different sets of practice and client service standards into one set of quality standards, shifting to a law practice-based approach to panel membership, changes to our service agreement to formally embed the quality standards and creating accountability for meeting those standards.

We progressed amendments to the Legal Aid Commission Act 1979 (NSW) to provide flexibility, responsiveness and quality control of private lawyers funded to do legal aid work. Finally, to ensure this focus endures, we established a new team, the Private Lawyer Quality Standards Unit, tasked with proactively monitoring the quality of services provided by private lawyers funded to do legal aid work. The unit is guided by quality priorities, which determine focus areas of legal service delivery for improvement.

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, and our strong partnership with the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT).

Finally, thanks to our staff who have endured so much uncertainty and change this year and just kept going for the sake of our clients. Recognition goes to our committed lawyers who continued going to court at the height of the pandemic, those that managed complex legal practices including conducting hearings at home with children in tow, and to our dedicated mail room, facilities and service desk staff who ensured that the wheels of justice were able to keep turning.

Brendan Thomas
CEO, Legal Aid NSW