The barriers that rural and regional communities have in accessing legal assistance are broadly understood— geographic isolation, limited public transport, poor telecommunications and gaps in legal providers are common problems.
In addition to these challenges, people living along the NSW and Victorian border experience additional barriers to timely legal assistance. These communities routinely travel across the border as part of their everyday activities, but in doing so, become subject to two distinct legal systems. This can increase the likelihood of legal problems arising and make it harder to resolve them.
In 2017, Legal Aid NSW and Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) established a joint project to investigate the unique challenges that arise for border communities needing legal help. The focus of this review was to examine how both legal aid commissions could work together more effectively to avoid confusion or duplication and make the experience of accessing legal aid more seamless and efficient for clients and legal practitioners alike.
The review involved widespread consultation with legal aid staff, private practitioners, Aboriginal community legal services, community legal centres and other social and justice staff along the border. It revealed opportunities for both legal aid commissions to improve practices and work together more deliberately to produce better outcomes for these communities. It also identified some key issues affecting border residents that will require further advocacy and engagement with other justice agencies.
The review found that client services in cross-border regions could be significantly improved if there was a more collaborative approach to service design and delivery between legal aid commissions. This should recognise the unique context in which these communities operate; the practical challenges associated with accessing legal and support services and some of the key legal problems that arise—increased coordination in the delivery of child protection/care and protection matters was identified as a priority. Both legal aid commissions have a role to play in supporting community legal centres in their work and in encouraging private practitioner participation in the legal aid scheme.
Border communities can be subject to poor intake, triage and referrals when seeking legal help due to confusion about eligibility or a lack of knowledge about interstate services. The review revealed the need for Legal Aid NSW and VLA to improve intake and assessment of matters from border residents—through better communication and coordination—to create a more seamless experience for applicants and avoid people wrongly missing out on receiving the help they need. This includes trialling a more flexible approach to determining eligibility for Commonwealth family law matters, to allow border residents greater choice in legal practitioners.
Finally, the review identified how some laws and practices that work effectively elsewhere produce unintended consequences in border communities. Strict enforcement of common conditions in community-based orders that prohibit people from interstate travel are often arbitrary for those living along the border. Court listing practices in family law matters mean border residents often must go through additional steps and delays to have their matter transferred to a location that is geographically close to them. Both legal aid commissions are committed to raising these problems with relevant agencies to address these unfair and anomalous outcomes for cross-border residents.