I recently had the opportunity to interview Anthony Reilly, CEO of Legal Aid Queensland, Australia. I was keen to learn more about how legal aid operates in a country analogous to Canada in many ways: Commonwealth history, common law legal system, diverse population and vast geographic size. Now if only our climate was more similar…
Anthony, you lead an extensive and successful legal aid program in Queensland, Australia’s second-largest state. What is your background and what motivated you to pursue a career in the legal aid system?
I am a lawyer by profession. I worked in community legal centres focusing on refugee and social security law for just under ten year during my twenties after I was admitted as a lawyer. However when I turned thirty I made the switch to government jobs — mainly because I needed to make a few more dollars as I had a family and a mortgage — but also because I was curious about how government worked and power was exercised. After over a decade in government roles, I saw the CEO job advertised and decided to have a go at it. Amazingly, I got it. It’s a great privilege leading this organisation.
Like Legal Aid Ontario, Legal Aid Queensland offers a range of services and resources including legal aid offices, community access points, duty lawyers, telephone advice, web-based information and full representation. What are some other legal aid services offered in your part of the world?
As you’ve pointed out, our core services are legal information, legal advice and legal representation. Our legal information services are available to all Queenslanders and aren’t means-tested. People can access the service over the phone or they can visit one of our 13 offices, which are located in our capital city, Brisbane, and at regional centres around the state. We also offer a lot of web-based legal information material covering a range of legal topics. We believe legal information is an important service because it can help people identify their legal issues and determine the steps they need to take to resolve those issues. Our legal advice sessions are also free to all Queenslanders and are available over the phone or face-to-face at one of our offices.
Legal representation is provided by our in-house legal practice staff and by ‘preferred supplier’ law firms around the state who do legal aid work on our behalf. About 80 per cent of our legal work is done by preferred suppliers. People who require legal representation need to complete an application form and meet our means and merit tests and our funding guidelines that are set by the state and Commonwealth governments. We provide legal representation in criminal, family and some civil law matters.
Some of our more specialised services are:
- Violence Prevention and Women’s Advocacy team that provides services to clients who are experiencing domestic violence
- Women’s Domestic Violence Court Assistance Service, which helps women who come to court for domestic and family violence matters
- Youth Legal Aid, which provides legal help to young people who have been charged with an offence
- The War Veterans Legal Aid Scheme, which helps war veterans or their widows appeal decisions made about access to their entitlements
- The Civil Law Legal Aid Scheme, which is run jointly with Queensland’s Public Trustee and helps to fund civil law matters where a grant of legal aid is not normally available
- Farm and Rural Legal Service, which provides assistance to rural producers who have severe debt related problems or are in dispute with their lenders
- Consumer Protection Unit, which gives advice and represents people who have disputes with banks, financial institutions and insurers, or problems with contracts, household bills, etc.
- Legal Aid Prison Service, which provides free legal advice to prisoners in correctional centres
- Mental Health Unit, which provides advice to mental health patients and their families. The team also represents people before the Mental Health Court and Mental Health Review Tribunal.
This list is not exhaustive, but it gives you an idea of the range of services we provide. We’re particularly proud of some of the responsive services we’ve been able to provide in recent years, like our Flood Legal Service, which we established in 2011 to represent people who were affected by the terrible floods that devastated Brisbane, Ipswich, Grantham and surrounding areas in January 2011. Our lawyers have represented hundreds of people who were affected by the floods and were in dispute with their insurers about their right to an insurance payout. The team has achieved fantastic outcomes for hundreds of people and we’re very proud of the work that they’ve done. We’ve also recently taken a more coordinated approach to our Community Legal Education Program, which aims to educate the broader community, and community workers, about their legal rights and how to access our services.
Who are your typical clients? Who are your priority clients?
Our clients are the most financially and socially disadvantaged members of our community. The majority will be on some form of government social security (“welfare”) and many face multiple disadvantages, like being unemployed, having low literacy levels, being homeless, coming from a non-English-speaking background or having a physical or cognitive disability. Our aim is to make sure that these vulnerable people do not fall through the cracks and are able to access our services.
What are some of the challenges that you face in providing service to remote areas and the outback? How do you overcome these challenges?
Queensland is a very large state, with the majority of the population living in the south-east corner and in regional cities along our coastline. In recent years, we’ve also seen population growth in some of our inland areas, like Mount Isa, because of the mining boom. We also have people living in small communities and on huge farming properties throughout the state. One of our challenges is ensuring that all Queenslanders can access our services, whether they live close to the Brisbane CBD, on a cattle property in the bush, or in a small community in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Much of what we do revolves around technology. We provide extensive legal information materials online, telephone information and advice service and advice through videoconferencing facilities. We also do regular visits to a range of communities, which allows legal advice to be provided face-to-face. And our lawyers go on circuit to regional and remote communities with our various courts.
Ontario, like Queensland, has a significant Aboriginal population which is overrepresented in the justice system. How do you provide culturally appropriate services to Aboriginal Queenslanders?
We have a number of services specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including our Indigenous information hotline which can be accessed from anywhere in Queensland for the cost of a local phone call. The hotline aims to ensure Indigenous people are able to access legal information and referral services, even if they live in remote parts of the state where there are limited legal services. Our staff, including our community liaison officer from our Cairns office, make regular visits to remote Indigenous communities to provide free legal information and advice sessions. We also provide our staff with cultural awareness training and our staff attend events like NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week, which is a celebration of Indigenous culture, to promote our services. In Australia, there is a specific legal aid organisation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, which is funded by the Commonwealth government to provide legal services to Indigenous people. Our organisations work together to help meet the legal needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
How has your organization evolved since its inception? Has technology changed the way that you serve your clients?
Legal Aid Queensland officially opened its doors on December 3, 1979, with 18 full-time and three part-time lawyers, 48 clerical staff and a budget of six-million dollars. Today we have 446 full-time equivalent staff, which includes our in-house legal practice (solicitors and barristers), grants officers who assess applications for aid and manage grants of aid, and administrative staff who work in areas like our law library, information technology services, finance, and human resources. Our budget has grown to around $111 million and we assist over 1.5 million people each year through our preventative legal services (this includes access to our community legal education activities, access to our website and publications and free telephone legal information and referral service), while a further 158,296 people receive legal assistance including legal advice, minor legal assistance, family law dispute resolution services, duty lawyer services and representation in court for criminal, family and civil law matters. We are the largest criminal law practice in Queensland and one of the largest legal practices generally in the state. Many of our lawyers are considered to be leading experts in their fields. We are proud of our track record of having staff appointed to the magistracy and judiciary and other senior government positions.
Technology has obviously had a major impact on the way we do business. We’ve recently introduced an electronic document and records management system for the entire organisation, we’ve been rolling out an electronic file management system for our legal practice, and we are currently trialling the use of iPads as tools for our lawyers to use to access legal resources, legislation and other documents while at court. We’ve also nearly finished a project to update our Duty Lawyer Handbook and for the first time will make it available as an e-publication that lawyers will be able to use on iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices. We’re also about to embark on a complete redevelopment of our external website, which should be completed in the next 12 months.
What are some successes that your organization has accomplished in the past year or so?
Every time a client gets good legal advice, or is well represented in court or in a mediation, that’s a success in my book!
Does Legal Aid Queensland face budget constraints? If so, how does your organization ensure best possible use of funds to deliver high-quality service?
Like all publicly funded organisations, Legal Aid Queensland must operate within the constraints of its budget, which is set by our funding bodies — the Queensland and Commonwealth governments. Governments have competing funding priorities, ranging from healthcare, education and policing, through to organisations like Legal Aid. There’s not a never-ending bucket of money to go around, so governments have to make choices about how they allocate their resources. Our job is to make sure that we are delivering value for money for the government and taxpayers and assisting as many people as we possibly can, as effectively as we possible can, within the confines of our budget. That means we can’t provide services across every area of law or to every person who would like free legal representation. So we target our services to the most disadvantaged members of our community, and we represent people in the areas of law where we can make the most difference to people’s legal outcomes and lives. By offering free legal information and advice, and running our community legal education program, we’re able to assist a larger number of people with their legal matters and hopefully help them achieve outcomes without needing further legal representation. We also use technology where we can to reduce the cost of service delivery; for example, we can use videoconferencing to provide legal advice to people in various prisons and correctional facilities, rather than have our lawyers make the sometimes long drive out and back to these facilities, which means they can assist more people. We also try to keep our administrative and corporate overheads to a minimum and we are extremely fortunate that many members of the legal profession are willing to take on legal aid casework at very reasonable rates. About 80 per cent of our work is briefed out to the profession and we couldn’t meet the legal needs of the community without their commitment to providing quality services to our clients.