A three-year pilot project to increase access to free legal assistance for young people experiencing, or at-risk of, family violence has resulted in many legal problems being fixed for those who would not normally get help from a lawyer.
In a Border first, the innovative Invisible Hurdles project saw Hume Riverina Community Legal Service embed a free lawyer into three organisations: Albury Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service (AWAHS), Wodonga Flexible Learning Centre and North East Support and Action for Youth Inc. (NESAY). Throughout the project, over 100 people were assisted with legal problems who would not have otherwise accessed a lawyer.
In launching the Invisible Hurdles Report, Overcoming the Invisible Hurdles to Justice for Young People, on Thursday 8 November, HRCLS Principal Lawyer Sarah Rodgers said of the many reasons behind the project’s success, the significant commitment by the partners was crucial to the outcomes.
“Co-location, relationship-building and trust, along with our availability and ability to respond quickly to legal problems, were central to us more effectively reaching the young people we want to help,” Ms Rodgers said. “As an independent community legal centre, we have the flexibility to help people for free, and without the strict guidelines that apply to accessing legal aid.”
Ms Rodgers said the service was proud to be part of the Integrated Justice Practice, combining health, education and legal services, which had proven to be very effective in getting legal issues because of the early intervention.
“This model is needed to help prevent legal problems from escalating and gives the best chance of a positive outcome,” she said. “Part of our strategic focus is ensuring young people experiencing family violence have the legal support they need to deal with the issues.”
North East Support and Action for Youth Inc. CEO Leah Waring said a positive ripple effect had been created relationships enhanced, while providing an opportunity for NESAY employees to gain new skills.
“Our staff now have the ability to identify a potential legal problem, and have the confidence to refer people they’re seeing who need legal advice to the Invisible Hurdles lawyer,” she said. “Our young people would be highly unlikely to make an appointment for help from the lawyer without encouragement from a support work they trust. And our young people are staggered they can see a lawyer for free, so without the Invisible Hurdles project, the opportunities for them to get legal help basically don’t exist.”
Dr Liz Curran, Associate Professor of Law at the ANU College of Law, led the research and evaluation of the project with Pamela Taylor-Barnett. Dr Curran said the research showed how allowing time for natural progression and learning was pivotal.
“The most important thing we learnt was that young people, the vulnerable and even professional services providers don’t trust lawyers and the legal system and that trust takes time to build,” Dr Curran said. “In the final year of the project, when those relationships were strong and working smoothly, we saw a massive increase in referrals and consultations – 288 in the final 12 months of the project.”
The first two years of the Invisible Hurdles project was made possible through funding received from the Victorian Legal Services Board Grant Program. Stage 2 funding for a further two years was announced on 29 October 2018.
Invisible Hurdles Report – Overcoming the Invisible Hurdles to Justice for Young People is online.
Young people experiencing family violence on the Border will continue to have access to justice through free legal assistance. The Invisible Hurdles project has received $340,000 of Victorian State Government funding over the next two years, through the Victorian Legal Services Board Grants Program.
Hume Riverina Community Legal Service Principal Lawyer Sarah Rodgers said the service was thrilled the Invisible Hurdles Project would keep delivering positive outcomes for young people needing legal assistance.
“In the last 12 months of the project, we saw a steady increase in referrals. This demonstrated how a program of this unique nature requires time for people to build skills, knowledge and trust, but it can impact lives in a significant way,” Ms Rodgers said.
Ms Rodgers said the successful funding application ensures Stage 2 of the Invisible Hurdles Project would provide the necessary scope and resources to build the service through partners, North East Support and Action for Youth Inc., the Albury Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service and Wodonga Flexible Learning Centre.
“This decision vindicates the work achieved in the first three years of this important project, the first of its kind in our region to target vulnerable youth linked in with key services,” Ms Rodgers said. “Many of the people we’re helping have experienced family violence, homelessness or trauma, and they often need legal advice urgently. We know if they are in a safe environment where they feel comfortable, and trust the people who are helping them, they are more likely to reach out for our legal help.
“In addition to our embedded lawyer at each location, a community development worker will be part of the project to help further educate young people on how they can impact the decisions being made that affect their lives.”
The funding announcement came just before the Invisible Hurdles Report launch on Thursday 8 November. Ms Rodgers said the inclusion of a community development worker was a key recommendation from the Invisible Hurdles Final Report.
Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula made the Victorian Legal Services Board Grant Program funding announcement last week, stating the funding to provide legal assistance and programs “is making a difference to the lives of some of our most vulnerable people, including victims of family violence and people with mental illness.” Mr Pakula congratulated funding recipients for the innovative projects and commitment to increasing access to justice for Victorians.
Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS) principal lawyer Sarah Rodgers has welcomed many of the recommendations in the Justice Project Final Report released last week. Ms Rodgers met with representatives from The Justice Project last year during the National Association of Community Legal Centres annual conference to talk about the important issues from a HRCLS perspective.
“We agree with the Justice Project’s vision of no person being denied access to justice in Australia,” Ms Rodgers said. “We fully support the Law Council of Australia continuing to engage with Government and the legal sector to advance the findings from this Report.”
Ms Rodgers said the HRCLS submission to the Report drew attention to a number of issues, including the need for longer-term funding grants, and the impact of large catchment areas on Rural, Regional and Remote community legal centres.
“It was important we highlighted to The Justice Project how the geographic spread and diversity of our Shires means that many people we see are financially and socially disadvantaged” she said.
Another HRCLS recommendation was the need for funding more than one Community Legal Centre (CLC) in each region to address conflict of interest issues would help remove a significant barrier.
“We turnaway about a third of the people who contact us for legal assistance, primarily due to conflicts of interest,” Ms Rodgers said. “Our service continues to see a high level of legal need, and these people have limited options for free legal representation, especially to deal with family law matters.”
As part of the submission to the Final Report, HRCLS also included the Invisible Hurdles project involving NESAY, and the Health Justice partnership with Gateway Health as success stories to highlight how service providers can work together to help people experiencing severe disadvantage.
Key HRCLS recommendations to the Justice Project report
- That lawmakers, policy makers and statutory bodies be required to consider cross border and regional areas when enacting laws and in their implementation.
- Fund more than one CLC in each catchment area.
- Provide incentives to private lawyers to encourage them to provide pro bono assistance to disadvantaged people, including by volunteering their time to their local CLC.
- Provide incentives to encourage lawyers to relocate to the country, such as HELP debt relief, salary packaging or housing subsidies.
- For courts to reconsider online only applications – e.g. divorce applications must now be lodged online. This creates barriers for elderly people, people with literacy issues and those living in rural areas with a lack of internet coverage.
- Fund longer term grants (more than one-two years) to allow sufficient time to establish a project and build relationships of trust.