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Chairperson’s report 2017–18 annual report

As chair of the Legal Aid Queensland Board, I am delighted to introduce our annual report for 2017-18.

It has again been a great pleasure to work with the Legal Aid Queensland Board this year. In September, we farewelled Philip Askin. I thank Philip, who is based in Townsville, for his valuable contribution to our organisation since September 2014, especially from a regional perspective. Our built environment has especially benefitted from board member Allan Welsh's expertise as chair of our Accommodation Committee. Our exposure to risks was addressed with the particular assistance of board member Sandra Deane who chaired our Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee. In July, Brisbane barrister Joshua Creamer joined the board and became the inaugural chair of our First Nations Advisory Committee, which aims to improve our service delivery to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients and communities.

This report highlights the organisation's considerable innovations, achievements and challenges over the past year as we continue our important work, providing quality, cost effective, frontline legal services to the financially disadvantaged, right across this vast, decentralised and culturally diverse state.

The attractive cover design for this year's report reflects our focus on Indigenous and youth justice initiatives and their overlap given the over-representation of Indigenous people in both the criminal justice and child protection systems.

During the past year, we established additional positions in our Brisbane and regional offices to enhance our capability in quality service provision, including four temporary graduate lawyer roles across our Townsville, Maroochydore and Ipswich offices. These appointments are for 24 months, with the graduates receiving training, development and support in the areas of criminal and family law. Given our newly formed First Nations Advisory Committee, it is serendipitous that three of these four positions have been filled by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees.

As much of rural Queensland has struggled with drought this reporting year, I am especially pleased to report that we have expanded our Farm and Rural Legal Service by employing a senior lawyer in our Townsville office.

We established a Youth Legal Advice Hotline through which young people, their families, youth justice stakeholders and police can communicate with a lawyer. It is hoped the hotline will provide early access to legal advice, resolve more issues early and encourage appropriate diversionary options or bail release for young people in contact with the criminal justice system.

This year also saw the establishment of our Remand Reduction Strategy which provides legal advice and representation to young people in detention to help them make bail applications in appropriate cases.

During my 26 years as a trial and appellate court judge, I came to admire the work of Legal Aid Queensland and the expertise of its lawyers. Since becoming chair, other judicial officers and lawyers have also expressed their admiration for the organisation. It is to its great credit that over its long history Legal Aid Queensland has developed this fine reputation in its fields of practice. The board hopes to nurture and develop these 'Centres of Excellence' for the benefit of clients, the Queensland legal profession, the justice system and the community. I am pleased that the organisation is developing and implementing policies, procedures and programs to continue to prudently shepherd precious public resources for the delivery of high quality, cost-effective services to clients. I am optimistic Legal Aid Queensland's culture of striving for best practice will continue to thrive into the future.

A primary focus this year has been to ensure we are capably responding to people most at risk of social exclusion, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Under the stewardship of the First Nations Advisory Committee, we are developing and implementing strategies to attract and retain more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees and have actively pursued diversity and inclusion through targeted Indigenous employment strategies. We have recruited four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law undergraduates in our Brisbane-based client contact centre as client information officers focussing on our Indigenous Hotline. We have also recruited an Indigenous community legal education and engagement officer, who is working with our valuable community legal sector colleagues to establish strategies and pathways to improve how we communicate and deliver complex legal information to culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Statistics indicate that sexual violence remains pervasive in all levels of society. This year, our staff have continued to provide a range of domestic and family violence services. Legal Aid Queensland successfully tendered with the Women's Legal Service to establish a state-wide sexual assault counselling privilege legal service-Counselling Notes Protect. This new service has a dedicated telephone line (1300 267 762). It focuses on providing legal advice and task assistance about the privilege to sexual assault victims and their support workers; court representation for sexual assault victims to prevent or limit the disclosure of counselling communications in criminal law and domestic and family violence court proceedings; and education and training to sexual assault support workers, the legal profession, other support service workers and stakeholders. Counselling Notes Protect should assist survivors of sexual assault to recover more quickly, knowing their discussions with counsellors are likely to be kept confidential.

To improve access to justice for those living in poverty, the board approved changes to the income test part of our grants of aid means test. Applicants for grants of aid whose weekly income is below the Henderson poverty line will no longer be required to pay a contribution to the cost of their grant of aid under the income test part of the means test. This reform will help ensure those most in need of our services have access to them. Ultimately, it will decrease the number of contributions we levy and help ensure contributions are requested only from those with the capacity to contribute.

I thank the Commonwealth Government for its foresight in providing ongoing financial support to deliver services such as the Family Advocacy and Support Services in Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns for families affected by domestic and family violence who have a current family law matter. Commonwealth funding also enabled us to establish a specialist Domestic Violence Unit in Rockhampton, delivering culturally appropriate wrap-around services to women experiencing, or who are at risk of, domestic and family violence. Funding for these often life-saving services currently expires in June 2019. I urge the Commonwealth Government to continue this vital funding beyond next June so that we can plan for and provide appropriate support to vulnerable Queenslanders affected by domestic and family violence, many of whom are children.

It is no secret that I have long been concerned about lack of diversity in the Queensland legal profession, particularly at the Bar. The independent legal profession, especially advocates, have an important institutional role in a vibrant democracy, defending the independence of the judiciary and ensuring access to the rule of law for all, including the poor, the unpopular and the dispossessed. The community has greater confidence in its legal profession and justice system when its make-up reflects the community it serves. I am therefore delighted that Legal Aid Queensland has this year endorsed the Law Council of Australia's equitable briefing policy and is implementing strategies to encourage our service providers to adopt it. The policy encourages those briefing barristers to consider whether a woman barrister is the most suitable for the particular case; to regularly review the percentage of women barristers briefed; and to aim to brief women barristers in at least 30 percent of matters. Women constitute close to 30 percent of the Queensland Bar and are among this state's brightest and most capable advocates. Our in-house legal practice has had no difficulty in more than meeting the Law Council of Australia's target. But disappointingly, some firms performing our work have not. I encourage all our service provider law firms to review their briefing policies and work towards meeting the Law Council targets with a view to improved performance in this area next year. The Queensland Bar and the community it serves will be the stronger for it.

There are many who have contributed to Legal Aid Queensland's pleasing performance this year. I thank the members of Queensland's legal profession, particularly our external service providers and our wonderful community legal centres. It has been a continuing pleasure to work closely with the officers and members of the Bar Association of Queensland and the Queensland Law Society. I gratefully acknowledge the vital ongoing support, financially, and more broadly, of the federal Attorney-General, the Hon Christian Porter MP, and the Queensland Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, the Hon Yvette D'Ath MP, and warmly thank them for it. I again thank the hard working and capable members of our board. And finally I thank the fine management team and the dedicated staff on whose shoulders Legal Aid Queensland stands. I very much look forward to continuing our work together in 2018-19 for the benefit of our clients, the justice system and the people of Queensland.

Margaret McMurdo Signature

Margaret McMurdo AC
Chairperson, Legal Aid Queensland Board

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