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START OF 2018–19 annual report
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As chair of the Legal Aid Queensland Board, I am delighted to introduce our annual report for 2018–19.
It has been an honour to work with the Legal Aid Queensland Board, management team and staff during 2019. We warmly welcomed our newest board member, Lucia Taylor, in August 2018. As a family law practitioner in Far North Queensland, Lucia brings a wealth of experience and valuable regional insight.
This report highlights the organisation’s milestones, achievements and challenges over the past year as we continue our important work across this vast, decentralised and culturally diverse state, providing quality, cost effective, frontline legal services to those in need.
This year marks a special milestone for Legal Aid Queensland—our 40th anniversary as an organisation. We will continue our ruby celebrations throughout 2019 but the highlight for this financial year was the Banco Court 40th Anniversary Celebration with the former Chief Justice of Australia, the Hon. Robert French AC. In his thoughtful and pertinent keynote speech, Mr French noted:
“This is a mature and substantial organisation providing a wide range of services to a wide range of disadvantaged Queenslanders and so, within the limits of its resources, advancing the foundational value of equal justice. As we come to 2019 and look back upon the history of Legal Aid Queensland we can return to the question—why is it important to mark this anniversary? It is important because it reflects a commitment by this organisation and those who support it, including the profession, to equal justice and, as an incident of equal justice, access to justice.”
Mr French showed his understanding of the broad range of Legal Aid Queensland’s work, rightly observing:
“Legal aid is not just about legal representation in civil or criminal litigation. Early access to advice may assist in avoiding the escalation of a minor legal problem into a major one and perhaps the compounding of legal problems, which inevitably impose burdens not only upon individuals but the society which ultimately has to do something about it.”
The last year was not without its challenges for Legal Aid Queensland: considerable growth and an increased demand for criminal law services. The organisation again embraced and successfully managed those challenges.
The ABC’s Four Corners exposé in May 2019, The Watch House Files: Queensland children kept in isolation in maximum security adult watch houses raised awareness about the shocking accommodation and conditions for many youths in conflict with the criminal justice system. Our community’s long-standing failure to address complex youth justice issues is shameful. I commend Legal Aid Queensland’s Youth Legal Aid team for its contribution to solving these daunting problems through its Remand Reduction Strategy, providing legal advice and representation for young people in detention to help them make appropriate bail applications. I thank the Queensland Government for funding this important initiative.
Another concerning criminal justice systemic issue for Queensland and the nation, is the over-representation of our First Nations People. Cape York Partnership founder, Noel Pearson, has described Indigenous Australians as “the most incarcerated people on the planet Earth”. Sadly, a “fact check” by academic news outlet The Conversation supports this description. Concerningly, the Closing the Gap Report 2019, shows that the incarceration rate of our First Nations People has not changed much over the past decade, leading our Prime Minister to acknowledge: “It shows we need to change the way we work”.
Over the past few years, Legal Aid Queensland has been striving to do just that. Our First Nations Advisory Committee has developed Legal Aid Queensland’s First Nations Strategic Plan, proudly launched earlier this year. Our First Nations Strategic Plan focuses on four objectives: to increase awareness and accessibility of legal aid services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; to be a centre of excellence for culturally capable legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; to be a significant employer within the legal profession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and to contribute to developing a more equitable justice system that addresses the disparity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the broader legal profession. Our Indigenous policy officers and staff members have worked hard over the last year to build partnerships within the legal and broader communities to provide a more inclusive, accessible and culturally sensitive workplace for our staff and clients.
Lack of diversity remains a concern for Queensland’s legal profession. Although women have been graduating in law in equal or greater numbers to men for many decades, they remain under-represented at the Queensland Bar. The Australian Law Council’s Equitable Briefing Policy introduced in 2016 provides measures to develop a level playing field for all members of the Australian legal profession and includes interim and long-term targets with the aim of briefing women in at least 30 percent of all matters. I am delighted Legal Aid Queensland is a signatory to the Equitable Briefing Policy and that many of our preferred supplier firms have reached or exceeded the 30 percent target, while other firms have improved their female barrister briefing rate and are on their way to achieving the target. At the Women Lawyers Association of Queensland 2018 awards night, our organisation presented the Legal Aid Queensland Equitable Briefing Award to Fisher Dore Lawyers. Some firms performing our work still have a way to go to achieve the target (see page 44 for more information). With women comprising nearly 30 percent of the Queensland Bar and being among the state’s brightest and most capable advocates, I encourage all our preferred supplier firms to embrace the Equitable Briefing Policy.
Legal Aid Queensland was most concerned when earlier this year lawyers working at former preferred supplier law firms were charged with fraud involving our organisation. Legal Aid Queensland is committed to the prudent management of public funds to help financially disadvantaged people with their legal problems. We have rigorous controls to ensure our preferred supplier law firms meet their ethical and financial responsibilities. We welcome the Crime and Corruption Commission’s investigation into this issue and continue to work closely with them.
We have expanded much needed services thanks to the Queensland Government’s increased funding in recent years. This has been essential to our operations as Commonwealth Government moneys represent only 33 percent of our total funding. Legal Aid Queensland continues to face challenges in funding the increasing demand for its services. We look forward to our continued close working relationship with the Queensland and Commonwealth Governments for the benefit of Queenslanders.
As part of our continuing efforts to improve access to justice for financially disadvantaged Queenslanders, this year we modified the assets test component of our means test calculation to allow applicants to exclude the first $2000 of cash savings from the calculation. The Legal Aid Queensland Board has also decided to review the means test annually. We were also able to modestly increase fees for private lawyers who do our work.
During the year, Legal Aid Queensland continued to develop our ‘Centres of Excellence’ and share the considerable expertise of our lawyers for the benefit of clients, the Queensland legal profession, the justice system and the community. During the year, we developed the Youth Justice Practitioners Guide to improve the quality and effectiveness of legal representation for young people. We also held civil law and child protection training opportunities for our staff and legal assistance and government sector colleagues.
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 hard-working 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. As our CEO, Anthony Reilly says, Legal Aid Queensland is truly a community of effort. It is one of which I am proud to be a part. I very much look forward to continuing our community of effort together in 2019–20, for the benefit of our clients, the justice system and the people of Queensland.
Margaret McMurdo AC
Chairperson, Legal Aid Queensland Board