Review of the Legal Aid NSW Aboriginal Field Officer pilot program in civil and family law

Cunneen, Chris, and Schwartz, Melanie (2014) Review of the Legal Aid NSW Aboriginal Field Officer pilot program in civil and family law. Report. Legal Aid NSW, Sydney, NSW, Australia. (Unpublished)

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[Extract] Executive summary This report arises out of interviews conducted with a number of participants and stakeholders in the Legal Aid NSW Aboriginal Field Officer (AFO) pilot program. Interviews were conducted in central Sydney, Campbelltown, Wollongong, Nowra, Dubbo, Coonamble, Walgett, Grafton and Coffs Harbour. Interviewees included Legal Aid solicitors and managers (including members of the Aboriginal Services Unit); practitioners and support staff from Aboriginal Legal Services; staff members from community legal centres and from Aboriginal community controlled organisations like AMSs; and private practitioners. All current and past field officers were interviewed.

The interviews uncovered unanimous support for the AFO program and the unanimous view that the program should continue and indeed expand. In the words of the manager of the CLSD and ROCP, 'I think it's just been outstanding. I can't imagine now not having field officers in some of the work we do'.

Level of engagement of Legal Aid NSW with Aboriginal clients and communities

There was widespread agreement among those interviewed that the level of engagement with Aboriginal clients and Aboriginal communities had increased since the commencement of the AFO program. Some of the specific barriers to engaging with Aboriginal clients were noted as:

• the absence of Aboriginal workers in communities • a lack of knowledge in communities about civil and family law issues • a lack of trust and knowledge that communities had in relation to Legal Aid • the absence of specifically targeted Community Legal Education (CLE), and • a lower level of cultural awareness within Legal Aid.

While the work of the AFOs was seen as integral to improved efforts in engaging Indigenous clients, this was complemented by a significant expansion of services by Legal Aid over recent years that also impacted on Aboriginal usage rates of Legal Aid services, including a focus on outreach and CLE (see part 2). The specific services that have been developed and which have impacted on access for Aboriginal people to legal services are detailed in part 3 of the Report. They include the development of the CLSD Program, the ROCP, the Money Counts Project, WDO and Fines Days and the Stolen Wages project.

The contribution of the AFO Pilot Project in expanding the reach of civil and family law into Indigenous communities

AFOs undertake a broad range of activities in an attempt to increase engagement of Legal Aid with Indigenous communities. Their major contributions to attempts to better service Indigenous clients were said to be as follows:

• AFOs have the capacity to ‘bridge the gap’ between Aboriginal people and Legal Aid and thus increase Aboriginal client numbers and Aboriginal access to CLE and outreach services. This ‘bridging’ also occurs by way of linking Aboriginal people to services other than Legal Aid where appropriate, including community legal centres, private practitioners, and other Aboriginal organisations. • The presence and contributions of AFOs make it much easier to facilitate the building of trust relationship between Indigenous clients and Legal Aid solicitors, which is the bedrock of a successful solicitor-client relationship. • The AFOs have been instrumental in building new relationships between Aboriginal communities and Legal Aid (and other service providers), often in communities that would be otherwise difficult to access. • AFOs are holders of ‘translatable knowledge’, because they understand and can convey legal material to Indigenous clients in a way that makes it most comprehensible to them, and can also explain to solicitors the significance of some of the statements made by Indigenous clients where they might otherwise be unappreciated. • The work of the AFOs have led to an increased usage of Legal Aid by Aboriginal clients • The quality of the service provided to Aboriginal clients has been vastly improved through the presence and skills of AFOs.

A number of specific strategies were identified that helped to maximise the impact of the work of the AFOs (they are discussed at part 5). These include the participation of AVOs in planning new projects; delivering targeted services (such as the WDO scheme) to provide structure and direction for the work of the AFOs; the provision of cultural awareness to Legal Aid staff by the AFOs; and provision of a more holistic approach to identifying legal need and to legal service responses.

The location of the AFO within an ALS has been a particularly successful strategy in ensuring optimal functioning of the AFO role. This is in part because it locates AFOs ‘already at a shop front that people in that town are going to go to’ (Civil Outreach lawyers). It also allows for direct referrals so that clients are not lost in the transition, and the close working partnership bolsters positive relationships with the ALS.

Reducing barriers between Aboriginal communities and Legal Aid NSW services

Part 6 looks in more depth at the reasons why AFOs are so valuable for Legal Aid. AFOs, each of whom had considerable background in law or legal support, provided a range of practical assistance to solicitors, including locating clients, ensuring client attendance, taking charge of necessary paperwork the whole gamut of client care. Further, communication and understanding between lawyer and client can be enhanced where the AFO is an intermediary, and client attendance and progression of cases can be improved simply by having the AFO involved.

There was also broad consensus that the presence of the AFOs lent credibility to the organisation for Aboriginal clients. AFOs also ensure that there is a consistent level of access to legal service for their target community, and provide continuity of service as the point of contact for the client.

AFOs are involved in all areas of civil and family law (see part 7), and highlighted child custody issues, care and protection, debts, fines, funeral plans, Centrelink disputes, and tenancy and employment issues as the most common matters that are brought to them.

  The relationship between Legal Aid NSW and the Aboriginal Legal Services

As mentioned above, the AFO position provides enormous opportunity to build strong working relationships with the ALS. Many interviewees saw the relationship between the two agencies as strengthened through a range of factors including the AFOs positions (see part 7). While the relationship between Legal Aid and the ALS was seen as strong, there were also noted points of friction, in particular in relation to comparative over-resourcing. Aboriginal Legal Service staff similarly saw improvement in the relationship between the two organisations but were conscious that there was still more improvement needed.

Operational Issues

There were a number of issues raised that relate to the effective day-to-day management of AFOs (see part 9). Some of these relate to the more general question of the integration of the role into Legal Aid, and others relate to the workload of the AFO and the relationships in place with the ALS. The issue raised the most was about the AFO role definition, and that too much flexibility or ambiguity about the parameters of the role can create problems for the AFOs themselves, as well as for the broader workplace in which they work.

Staff in the offices where AFOs are based raised a range of challenges to maximising the effectiveness of the role. Some involve a lack of clarity around what the role does and does not entail, while other comments speak to the need for more predictability about when the AFO is available to a particular office. It was also suggested that more detailed handover, induction and training tailored specifically for the role would assist AFOs to find their feet earlier. The AFOs were strongly supportive of the access to training they receive, however, the difficulty of having the AFOs ‘leave their post’ to travel to Sydney for training was also noted.

The impact of AFOs on Legal Aid organisationally

Many of those interviewed saw substantial change in the way Legal Aid operates as an organisation as a result of the AFO positions. There was said to be greater institutional awareness of the importance of having Aboriginal staff. The AFO program was thought to have brought about a ‘cultural shift’ around how Legal Aid engages with Aboriginal communities, including doing more outreach into community and having more of a ‘drop in’ approach for Aboriginal clients at Legal Aid offices.

Through the AFO role, cultural awareness in Legal Aid is heightened through formal and informal mechanisms – presentation at conferences, conversations in the lunchroom, and, in the words of one solicitor in charge, creating ‘the capacity for us to learn about how to engage’ with Aboriginal clients.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of the program has been its success in reducing the barriers between Aboriginal communities and Legal Aid. Through the work of the AFOs, Legal Aid has more frequent and more effective engagement with Aboriginal clients in the areas of civil and family law.

Challenges to success in the AFO Pilot Project and suggested improvements

Part 11 of the report considers the impact of the gender of the AFO on the work that they do. Commonly, interviewees expressed the importance of having a male and female AFO who could respond appropriately to gendered issues.

Other challenges to the success of the AFO program, and suggested improvements, are dealt with in part 12. The most frequently suggested improvement to the program was its expansion into other regions of NSW. This stemmed from deep enthusiasm for the role, and also from recognition of the problems associated with the geographic area that the AFOs are required to cover and the danger of burn out.

The necessity for dividing one AFO between a number of locations contributed to tensions arising with offices who feel like they are not getting equal allotments of the AFO’s time. The AFOs acknowledged that distances they are required to travel make their work difficult. For example in the northern region, one AFO covers the same area that eight ALS field officers are responsible for in relation to criminal matters. Part of the pressure to respond to requests to travel extensively can come from the demands of Aboriginal communities for assistance.

AFOs often have extraordinary demands placed on their time and professional capacity from a variety of sources. AFOs work hard and the nature of their work is extremely taxing. The necessity for clear boundaries around AFO workload was raised, as well as the desirability for providing guidance about the types of work that AFOs should prioritise.

Another challenge to making the AFO role work effectively was said to be problems in integrating the AFO into Legal Aid offices. Without ongoing efforts to incorporate AFOs into the practice of the offices where they work, problems can arise, including strained relationships and lack of appreciation of the AFO role, which in turn lead to reduced effectiveness in outcomes. The office where this seemed to be most pronounced was at the Wollongong Legal Aid office, which is used in the report as a case study for possible improvements in this area.

There are a number of other improvements that are noted in the report in the Report including better use of AVL and AFO reporting mechanisms.

Item ID: 37318
Item Type: Report (Report)
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Date Deposited: 15 Nov 2016 23:30
FoR Codes: 18 LAW AND LEGAL STUDIES > 1801 Law > 180101 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Law @ 50%
18 LAW AND LEGAL STUDIES > 1801 Law > 180102 Access to Justice @ 50%
SEO Codes: 94 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 9404 Justice and the Law > 940403 Criminal Justice @ 50%
94 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 9404 Justice and the Law > 940406 Legal Processes @ 50%
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