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Surge in demand for legal help

Surge in demand for legal help

By Karin Derkley

COVID-19 Interviews 

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The legal assistance sector has rallied together and innovated to help people needing urgent legal help as a result of the pandemic.

Since March 2020 community lawyers have been hit with a pandemic-related surge in demand for legal assistance, fielding waves of inquiries related to job loss, tenancy issues, family violence and restriction infringements.

Victoria Legal Aid has clocked up 11,000 family violence calls since May; Justice Connect saw a 150 per cent increase in website visits; and Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) saw a significant increase in workload with Aboriginal people five times more likely to be fined for non-compliance of restrictions due to homelessness.

Individuals who didn’t know what a community legal centre (CLC) was until COVID-19 hit were, in the words of Youthlaw community lawyer James Tresise, “banging down the door” for help.

“COVID-19 has challenged the Victorian community legal sector in ways we could never have predicted,” says Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC) CEO Kristen Wallwork. “As a result of COVID-19, many Victorians experienced legal issues and concerns – some for the very first time.”

Justice Connect CEO Chris Povey says there was massive growth in inquiries from people “who didn't really know where else to look. When the lockdown first started people didn't know what their rights were, and there weren't really good systems for explaining to people. There was this incredible thirst for information delivered in a way that was appropriate to the kind of circumstances we found ourselves in.”

Working together, community legal centres have been able to distribute resources and strategically engage with communities in ways best suited to their unique needs and challenges, Ms Wallwork says. 

Photo: FCLC Chair Kristen Wallwork

“Our success through the pandemic has been due largely to our collaborative strength as a sector and our increased partnerships with other community organisations and the Victorian government. Working together, we have been able to reach people who may otherwise have slipped through the cracks of the legal system.”

Those most affected by the lockdowns have been casual workers, women in family violence situations, Aboriginal people, young people and international students. 

Despite many people last year being covered by JobKeeper or a more generous JobSeeker, many casual workers fell through the cracks, losing their income with no safety net. That led to a flood of demand for services such as JobWatch, which took thousands of calls about employment rights issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, half taken in the first three months of the pandemic.

Community lawyers also had to field inquiries from distressed clients whose landlords were refusing to help them, despite the rental moratorium and a process to negotiate rent reductions. “We had clients who were bullied by their landlords,” says Inner Melbourne Community Legal (IMCL) director of strategy, engagement & projects Nadia Morales. “It was just so stressful for them to have to fight with their landlords in that way.”

International students were among those left high and dry without any means of support, says James Tresise. “We got absolutely slammed. International students were banging down the door trying to get support and in a desperate situation. They weren't sure they were going to have a roof over their head. They were lining up for food handouts in the city.”

Photo: Youthlaw community lawyer James Tresise

The situation was also dire for women in family violence situations who were suddenly stuck at home with their abusers, says Women’s Legal Service Victoria CEO Serina McDuff. “It was a particularly unsafe time for those women and the sector had to quickly adapt to ensure we could reach those women and children in need.” 

Young people were particularly impacted by fines handed out for infringements of constantly changing restrictions, Mr Tresise says. “We had clients who got fined because they couldn’t explain why they were out and about. They were homeless, or they were walking home from work and they couldn’t explain what was going on.”

Aboriginal people were more likely to be fined than non-Aboriginal people for non-compliance, a burden shouldered by VALS. “The pandemic has been an incredibly stressful time for our communities,” says VALS CEO Nerita Waight, “and there has been a lot of confusion about the policing responses implemented by the Andrews government to manage the pandemic. This has seen a significant increase in our workload across the organisation.”

IMCL was part of the network of CLCs working collectively to help people who could not afford to pay fines issued for infringements of COVID-19 restrictions. “A lot of our time went into resolving individual problems and dealing with the issues,” says Ms Morales. It was a time-consuming process, as reviewing each fine required working out which restriction was in place at the time the fine was issued, she says.

IMCL lawyers also dealt with the impact on public housing tower residents of the snap lockdown in early July. “It was a really difficult and awful time for the community,” says director of legal practice Jessica de Vries. “People were locked in their flats and they didn’t know what was going on. There were all sorts of problems in getting basic relief, medical treatment and just surviving.”

Part of the problem was the densely worded and unclear information about the restrictions. IMCL focused on putting the information into a more accessible format, and organising volunteers to engage with the community locked in their flats. “We had to get really creative with the way we got the message out to the community, including via WhatsApp groups,” Ms de Vries says.

The service is now working on legal redress for those affected by the lockdown, and on advocacy to ensure the state government adopts the recommendations set out in the Ombudsman's investigation of the lockdown. 

Compounding the increased legal need was the requirement for many legal services to move to remote working, forcing lawyers to deal with clients by phone and online, with no colleagues in the room to turn to for a debrief. 

Photo: VALS CEO Nerita Waight

That was particularly the case for clients with court matters that had to be adjourned because of pandemic restrictions, and no clear timetable for rescheduling. “If you can't provide clients with assurance and certainty, that just heightens their anxiety,” Ms Morales says.

Justice Connect’s Chris Povey says it was a year where lawyers worked long hours in isolation. “Some people would just keep working because there was nothing else to do anyway. But that is a very draining way to work, it takes a toll on people.” 

“For the months around the lockdown, most of us were working after hours and weekends and we barely got a break. It was really intense” says IMCL’s Ms Morales.

But with the restrictions on face to face contact with clients, it was also a time where legal services showed their versatility to find innovative ways to provide their clients with access to their services.

Ms Wallwork says the sector’s ability to transition its services for remote access and virtual engagement enabled CLCs across the state to reach and assist the people most acutely impacted by the pandemic.

Justice Connect had fortuitously spent the past few years revamping its website and online offerings, meaning that the service was in an ideal position to cater to the surge in demand. 

“When this all happened, we felt very fortunate to have spent years investing in digital technology and innovation and thinking about how we could put our work in an online environment,” Mr Povey says. “That meant we were able to ride that transition to online in a way that minimised disruption. And in fact we saw growth in the sort of support that we could provide.”

Photo: Inner Melbourne Community Legal (IMCL) director of strategy, engagement & projects Nadia Morales

IMCL received COVID-19 funding from the City of Melbourne to expand its online case management system. “That meant we could do all our casework not just from home, but from our outreach service providers,” Ms Morales says.

One major challenge was how to reach women in family violence situations. Women who would normally have accessed legal help via health justice partnerships were stuck at home with their perpetrator partners. To help them access legal information from home via the FCLC website, a quick exit button was provided that when clicked would revert to the Google search page if their partner came into the room.

At Victoria Legal Aid, a priority phone line for family violence matters shortened the wait time for callers after legal help and reception staff noticed an increase in the number of people unable to wait on the line or others speaking in whispers because they were at home in an unsafe situation, VLA’s associate director, Family Violence Response Leanne Sinclair says. The phone line has received more than 11,000 calls since May last year. In June VLA also created a separate web chat channel for family violence matters that made it easier for people who couldn’t safely make a phone call during the restrictions. 

At Women’s Legal Service Victoria video-conferenced family violence support services that had already been well established to provide support across the state saw a large increase in demand, Ms McDuff says. “The fact the service was already remote made it perfect for the COVID-19 setting. It meant they were supported and could contact us at a time that was safe for them.” 

Support came not just from those already working in the sector, but from the legal community as a whole. Mr Povey says the response from firms to the call out for more support was “outstanding”. “When there’s a major crisis in the community, the profession stands in an incredible way. From the start of the year when the bushfires struck, pro bono lawyers were thinking how can we do more, even when firms were experiencing their own challenges.”

Ms McDuff says the sector will benefit long-term from the efficiencies and innovations that were gained during the pandemic. “Across the sector we’re all looking at how we can retain the efficiencies we’ve gained and the more innovative and effective ways of working. We’re operating differently now and we won’t go back to operating in ways that are less effective.

Photo: Justice Connect CEO Chris Povey

“It's important to our clients to reach them in the way that’s most useful for them. Women’s Legal Service will retain a large online training capacity, we will continue offering in person when we can because we know people need that as well, but we’ll be able to provide that kind of dual offering.”

Mr Povey says the year “was very difficult for individuals personally and for the organisation in many respects, but even though you wouldn't wish it on anyone, we thrived last year. It was a year that really demonstrated our purpose and our value”.

What the sector hopes has become evident is the important role community legal services play in heading off costly legal problems associated with the pandemic and the state’s recovery. 

“Over the course of the pandemic, we saw that the avoided costs facilitated by early legal intervention are significant to government and to Victorian communities,” says Ms Wallwork. “Through the valuable work of community legal centres, we hope to further these savings throughout Victoria’s COVID-19 economic recovery and beyond.” ■

Photo: Women's Legal Service CEO Serina McDuff


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