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Annual Report 2020 - 2021

Chair's report

Craig Smith

On behalf of the Board, I am pleased to introduce Legal Aid NSW’s Annual Report for 2020–2021.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the passion and commitment displayed by Legal Aid NSW staff over two years of fire, flood, and pandemic. The Board has had occasion to acknowledge outstanding initiatives in client services provided over this challenging period, and corporate services’ work in providing the foundations for it to continue.

Legal Aid NSW has been well served by the Pandemic Control Centre led by Deputy CEO Monique Hitter in responding to ever-evolving challenges posed by COVID-19, associated restrictions and the significant impacts on our staff and our clients. The Board and I commend the Pandemic Control Centre’s work in developing the Framework for Client Contact during COVID-19, which has provided clear, flexible guidance for the CEO’s decisions on maintaining a safe work environment across our offices in NSW.

The Board and I would like to thank the Commonwealth and NSW Governments for funding support which has enabled Legal Aid NSW to respond to the particular legal needs emerging from COVID-19, floods and bushfires, and to respond to the increase in demand for legal assistance from victim-survivors of domestic and family violence.

I am proud to report that the Board has given its support to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the outcomes it seeks. We remain concerned about the high incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care.

Accordingly, the Board is committed to supporting initiatives directed at improving access to justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We are impressed by the commitment demonstrated by all areas of Legal Aid NSW to increase the services provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients, along with other initiatives within Legal Aid NSW to boost employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, support procurement from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses, and develop cultural competency and safety in the workplace.

Specific initiatives such as the Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities’ work on access to the Stolen Generations Reparations Scheme, internal reviews of Legal Aid NSW policies to ensure they do not create unintended barriers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people accessing our services, and the work of the Aboriginal Services Branch are worthy of note.

Recognition of outstanding service

In November 2020 the Board congratulated Kylie Beckhouse on her appointment as a judge of the Federal Circuit Court. Her Honour had been family law director since 2009 and in that position, she provided outstanding assistance to the Board.

The Board also acknowledged Sally Bryant’s award of the Public Service Medal in the Australia Day Honours List. Sally coordinates the Disaster Response Legal Service (DRLS), leading the legal assistance response to the 2019–2020 bushfires.

The DRLS is a wonderful demonstration of what can be achieved by harnessing the commitment of Legal Aid NSW staff and solicitors, and employing collaborative approaches to service provision, including with Resilience NSW, Service NSW, community legal centres across NSW, Justice Connect, and pro bono assistance from the legal profession. The state is well served by the leading role DRLS plays in legal responses to disasters.

The Board commends the work of the Private Lawyer Quality Standards Unit in embedding a clear and consistent approach to supporting the quality of legal aid services provided by private lawyers through the implementation of the Private Lawyer Quality Framework and the successful reform of the panel process.

Matters in the pipeline

The following initiatives are underway in consultation with the Board:

  • implementation of a new direction for our family law services
  • finalisation of the sexual harassment and unacceptable behaviour policies, and
  • reform of the appeal and review processes.

Special thanks

I thank the members of our Board and of the Audit and Review Committee for their commitment and support. All members have made important contributions to the achievement of Legal Aid NSW’s statutory remit – to ensure that legal aid is readily available and easily accessible to disadvantaged people throughout NSW and is provided efficiently and effectively. I acknowledge and thank the many volunteer members, past and present, who have served on Legal Aid Review Committees.

The provision of legal aid in NSW is dependent upon the private legal profession and I thank those practitioners undertaking this work, for their service to the community, and in supporting Legal Aid NSW to achieve its purpose.
I acknowledge the work of community legal centres across NSW – our close and collaborative working relationship was aptly demonstrated during recent disasters.

Finally, I acknowledge the outstanding leadership of Legal Aid NSW CEO Brendan Thomas. The successful ongoing reform agenda, support provided to staff through difficult times, and the excellent reputation enjoyed by Legal Aid NSW are testaments to Brendan’s leadership. Brendan is ably supported by the Executive, who are frequently commended by the Board on their foresight, energy, and commitment.

The year ahead

Stay positive, support each other, and reach out for help when needed. Ensuring that Legal Aid NSW maintains its resilience is key to our ability to respond with care and expertise to growing community need for assistance to address legal issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

I know that Legal Aid NSW and our partners will rise to meet these and other forthcoming challenges.

Craig Smith
Chair, Legal Aid NSW