Go to content

Annual Report 2020 - 2021

What we did over the past year

This year was the third under our five-year strategic plan. The Legal Aid NSW Strategic Plan 2018–2023 clearly sets our direction and policies, how we will target our resources in the face of growing demand for our services, and how we will develop and support our staff.

Our first Legal Aid NSW Conference

On 4 June 2021, we held the first organisation-wide virtual conference in the history of Legal Aid NSW. The conference was broadcast from the International Convention Centre Sydney to offices and staff across the state.

The conference was an opportunity for our entire workforce to come together to celebrate our achievements and discuss topical issues. The theme for the conference was Our place, our purpose, our people, confirming what we stand for, our place in the legal system and in the communities we serve. We also celebrated our people – the life force of Legal Aid NSW – and our resilience through the challenges of 2020–2021.

The event included a stellar cast of speakers, including NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant, Commissioner of Resilience NSW Shane Fitzsimmons, Founder and CEO of ID. Know Yourself Isaiah Dawe, Chief Executive Women President Sam Mostyn, Black Dog Institute psychologist Anne Bunt and Perspektivs leadership and performance coach Nicole Torrance, along with sessions led by staff members.

Our response to COVID-19

1. Processes and procedures

Our COVID-19 Service Delivery Continuity Plan, Legal Aid NSW Service Disruption Plan, and COVID-19 framework continued to be utilised in 2020–2021 to guide our pandemic response.

Our Pandemic Control Centre (PCC) continued to coordinate our response to the imposition and easing of restrictions. The PCC implemented our COVID-19 Service Delivery Continuity Plan and coordinated communications to staff and external stakeholders about the organisation’s strategies and responses to COVID-19. It was the central contact point for staff and external agencies.

The COVID-19 framework comprises five operational responses for staff, client and stakeholder contact during COVID-19. Throughout the year, the CEO and PCC determined our operational response based on NSW Health advice and the level of risk in the community. This meant allocating offices to a suitable level according to the COVID-19 Framework for Client Contact and regularly assessing and reallocating according to risk.

2. Information and services for our clients

We promoted access to legal information during the COVID-19 pandemic through online factsheets, social media, and by phone contact through LawAccess NSW. Topics covered include the Public Health Orders and associated fines, job losses, social security entitlements, and family law issues regarding arrangements for children.

Our criminal lawyers were instrumental in the sharp decline of the prison population in NSW. Criminal lawyers lodged release and review applications for their clients in record numbers and facilitated changes in bail decisions and the review of previous remand decisions. Notably, the increasing number of people released to bail did not see an increase in the crime rate.

Our family lawyers continued offering two-hour streamlined telephone mediations to allow parties to mediate any
COVID-19-related family law issues within two weeks of making contact with us. We also extended the means test exemption for parents in primary proceedings for care and protection matters.

Our civil lawyers assisted clients with pandemic-related legal needs, particularly in the areas of housing and tenancy, access to government benefits, employment, immigration, financial hardship and mental health matters.

We received stimulus funding from state and federal budgets to address COVID-19-related backlogs and areas of demand. We allocated these funds to a variety of projects.

  • We boosted staffing levels in the Domestic Violence Unit to address the significant increase in referrals during the pandemic. Resourcing was allocated to enhancing the domestic violence hotline from 16 available appointments per week to over 140 to provide general advice on all legal issues related to domestic and family violence.
  • We will establish a free call 1800-number for people calling our Domestic Violence Unit, to address the increase in demand and high drop-out rates.
  • We recruited additional civil lawyers to assist with increased demand for housing, immigration and mental health matters.
  • We recruited additional administrative staff and paralegals.
  • We will address the social needs of vulnerable clients by recruiting social workers and an in-house specialist family dispute resolution practitioner.

Story iconAssisting a young mother during COVID-19

A young mother attended our office seeking urgent assistance. She was the victim of extreme physical, coercive and controlling family violence. The baby’s father had refused to return their baby to our client after a domestic violence incident in which our client was badly injured. She went to the local hospital for treatment, but her injuries required specialist treatment interstate. She contacted Centrelink at the behest of the father to ask them to transfer the parenting payment to him, and Centrelink advised her to seek legal advice.

We saw the client, filed an application for a recovery order and obtained the order for the child’s return to the mother within a day. The father and baby were eventually located interstate, but the execution of the orders was a challenge given the COVID-19 border closures. We assisted the client to obtain the necessary permit so the child could be returned to her in NSW.

3. Our staff

As at 30 June 2021, the majority of our staff were working from home, except for staff performing essential functions that could not be done from home, including court attendance and mail services. Additional information and communications technology support was made available, including additional staff for the service desk, increase of bandwidth and installation of a new VPN.

Measures were put in place to ensure staff didn’t feel isolated at home, including regular virtual team meetings, providing resources about working flexibly and remotely, providing psychological services accessible online, and mental health first aid officers regularly checking in with staff.

4. Our partners

We communicated relevant COVID-19 measures to private lawyers and our partner agencies, including the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), community legal centres,
Service NSW and NSW Police.

Members of the Legal Aid NSW Executive continued to meet regularly with agencies in the NSW Stronger Communities cluster to develop cross-agency responses, especially in settings such as courts and correctional centres.

Our response to disasters

1. A new model for disaster response

The Legal Aid NSW disaster response service model and plan were developed nearly a decade ago. Previously our disaster response work was localised, and lawyers were deployed on a short-term basis to provide legal help at recovery centres when required.

Following the bushfire crisis in 2019–2020, and with the likelihood of more frequent, widespread disasters impacting larger numbers of people, a new response was required. We recognised the need for a flexible service model that could be mobilised immediately and scaled up according to the size of the disaster.

This year we conducted a review of our response to the 2019–2020 bushfires and of our service model, consulting widely with legal and non-legal partners in the government and non-government organisation sectors.

We developed a refined, scalable service model that can be rapidly mobilised. It contemplates an end-to-end, continuous service response for the full life cycle of disasters, from pre-planning and mitigation to crisis response and post-disaster support for individuals and communities.

The new model ensures organisational readiness to provide immediate, high-quality, trauma-informed services with more formalised partnerships and referral pathways that meet the needs of clients affected by disasters, whatever the scale or location. It also includes targeted strategies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities affected by disasters.

2. Bushfire Legal Aid Scheme

The Commonwealth Government provided funding for legal assistance to NSW primary producers and small businesses dealing with legal issues relating to the 2019–2020 bushfires. Using this funding we developed the Bushfire Legal Aid Scheme, where private lawyers can access legal aid funding to provide legal services to this target group.

The scheme is provided through early resolution assistance (ERA), a service type that facilitates a streamlined application process and a simplified administrative funding process. ERA is aimed at early intervention of legal disputes that can be resolved by dispute resolution.

3. Responding to floods

We continued to provide information and advice to communities affected by floods through our Disaster Response Legal Service. Read more about our response to floods Highlights from our practice areas.

Putting our clients at the centre

Over the past year we have changed the way we work to put our clients at the centre of everything we do and improve the quality of services we provide. Guided by client feedback, we redesigned our service model to focus on targeted and specialised services that reach the people who need us most.

1. Transition to telephone services and appointments

We shifted from delivering most services in person to offering clients greater convenience and flexibility through expanded telephone and digital offerings, and we did so without compromising on the quality of our services. Four in five clients have welcomed our switch to telephone advice services.

We streamlined client entry to our services. Clients now make an appointment to speak with a lawyer, rather than trying to navigate first in, first served sessions.

2. Consistent triage

All people are now consistently triaged to the right level and type of service regardless of the office or number they call to get legal help.

Our new approach to triage has already increased the proportion of disadvantaged people receiving our legal advice services. A third of our offices show that over
80 percent of advice clients are highly disadvantaged.

Triage has also meant that more calls are completed by LawAccess NSW information officers without the need to progress to a lawyer.

3. Digital resources

Our clients have told us they want more ways to engage with us, including digitally.

LawAccess NSW commenced providing legal information via webchat in April 2021. It has had a strong uptake, with completion of over 3,000 chats with clients by 30 June 2021 and the result of the chat being either provision of information or referral to a solicitor or another service.

Our digital guided pathways for fines and traffic problems, launched last year in June 2020, have had 46,000 unique page views.

We made updates to our Grants Tracker to make it simpler for clients to opt in to receive updates about their grant of aid. More than half the clients using our Grants Tracker told us that the tool meant they did not need to call us.

Learn more about our client service initiatives at Highlights this year: how we made a difference to clients and communities.

Integration with LawAccess NSW

In 2020–2021, we successfully progressed the integration of LawAccess NSW into Legal Aid NSW. This required a transfer of staff, budget, and IT systems.

The integration has allowed us to harness the expertise of LawAccess NSW staff and promote a single telephone number that clients can call to access legal assistance. Our clients tell their story once and are matched to the right service on first contact. This is critical for clients who need urgent help or have experienced trauma.

The integration supported our ability to maintain access to our services during COVID-19 restrictions and our general transition to providing legal advice by phone. Read more at Highlights this year: how we made a difference to clients and communities.

Making it easier for private lawyers to do legal aid work

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

This year we developed a framework for engaging with private lawyers to support, drive and monitor quality. This 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, and changes to our service agreement. 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.

We established the Private Lawyer Quality Standards Unit, tasked with proactively monitoring the quality of services provided by private lawyers. The unit has conducted regional visits and is progressing the Lawyer Education Series, which provides private lawyers with free legal education on topics such as domestic and family violence, care and protection, guardianship, and mental health, via the Legal Aid NSW website.

Existing panel members were invited to apply to join the new panels from 1 February 2021. Since then, 1,509 law practices have been onboarded, of which 131 were not on previous panels. Read more at Private lawyers.

Increasing access to justice for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable

This year we reviewed and implemented changes to our eligibility policies. We increased access to our services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people experiencing domestic and family violence, and for children and young people. Read more at Providing services to those who need them the most.

A model for interdisciplinary practice

An increasing number of services across Legal Aid NSW recruited allied professional staff, such as social workers and financial counsellors, to support holistic service delivery for our most vulnerable clients.

This year we led a project to develop an overarching framework for interdisciplinary teams, providing guidance to solicitors and allied professionals working alongside each other. The framework was piloted in the Elder Abuse Service, Mental Health Advocacy Service, Domestic Violence Unit, and the Bankstown Family Litigation Team Priority Client Project. It examined the purpose and role of allied professionals, supervision structures, decision-making across disciplines, how to respond when professional duties collide, and a model for collaborative casework.

Examining the future of family law at Legal Aid NSW

We commenced a future blueprint for the family law practice. This complex examination involved consultation and discussions with in-house family lawyers, private lawyers, members of the judiciary, and other external stakeholders.

The blueprint will provide a road map that builds on the strengths of the family law practice in seven key priority areas, with the overarching strategic direction geared toward making families safe and functional. It is expected that it will be approved and implemented during 2021–2022. Read more at Highlights from our practice areas.

Introduction of flexible work

We developed and launched a new flexible working policy in February 2021. This included an online flexible work agreement form which has had excellent uptake. As at 30 June 2021, 1,021 staff had applied for flexible work agreements, with 863 approved.

A flexible work survey conducted in April 2021 had 341 responses from Legal Aid NSW staff and it showed that:

  • 92 percent agreed that their manager supports flexible working in their team, and
  • 85 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with their ability to use and access flexible working arrangements.

Read more at Programs aim to keep staff healthy and safe at work.

NSW People Matter Employee Survey

The Public Service Commission’s annual NSW People Matter Employee Survey was conducted in October and November 2020. Legal Aid NSW staff achieved a 97 percent completion rate compared with a sector average of 47 percent.

Key results included an overall employee engagement score of 77 percent, with 14 teams having scores above 80 percent. Staff expressed satisfaction with the approach taken to flexible work and felt we delivered high-quality customer service. Read more at Legal education and capability development.

International Legal Aid Group Conference 2021

Legal Aid NSW was the host of the International Legal Aid Group Conference in 2021, held on 22–24 June. The International Legal Aid Group is a network of legal aid specialists, including CEOs and managers from legal aid organisations around the world. The 2021 conference was wholly virtual with pre-recorded or live web-based sessions available for attendees to watch via the Legal Aid NSW website.

celebrating LawAccess

Celebrating the integration of LawAccess NSW with Legal Aid NSW at the LawAccess NSW office in Parramatta.