Lessons for mainstream organisation from CLSAC, a warm and compassionate legal service for Aboriginal communities

Mark Ragg and Megan Williams

Ragg & Co > Commentary > Lessons for mainstream organisation from CLSAC, a warm and compassionate legal service for Aboriginal communities

Most mainstream organisations find it difficult to get it right in delivering services to Aboriginal communities. We recently completed a review of the Legal Aid NSW’s Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities, or CLSAC, which pretty much does what its name suggests it should – it offers civil law services to selected communities and prisons in NSW. And we were excited to find a very impressive organisation.

While CLSAC sits within a mainstream organisation, its clients are Aboriginal people, so as an evaluation tool we used Ngaa-bi-nya, developed by Megan. Ngaa-bi-nya is a practical guide to the evaluation of Aboriginal health and social programs, with a range of prompts to stimulate data collection and analysis of factors for success in service delivery. Ngaa-bi-nya’s prompts were developed from reviews of evidence about success from Aboriginal perspectives, as well as human rights instruments and insights from program evaluations by, with and for Aboriginal peoples.

CLSAC’s genesis was in 2008 when Legal Aid NSW commissioned a review of the civil law needs of Aboriginal people, and whether the organisation was meeting those needs. One woman told the review that Legal Aid needed to:

“show us a bit of initiative and a bit of oomph, mate, and show us that you do give a damn, rather than just sitting behind the office and answering the phone. Get out there, get amongst it.”

So they did, to some extent. Then in 2013 Legal Aid NSW responded to a rush of consumer scams in remote communities by setting up a service called Money Counts. It also got funding to establish a service for Aboriginal women leaving custody, who often find themselves homeless, and are at high risk of having their children removed.

At the same time, the Abbott government ripped $500 million from Aboriginal-led community services, which led to the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT having to scale back and concentrate on criminal matters. Community legal centres were already stretched and underfunded.

There was a gap in affordable or free legal services for Aboriginal people in areas other than criminal law, and Legal Aid NSW created CLSAC.

Most outreach services, be they legal, health or other, are reasonably formulaic. They’ll be in a particular venue at a particular time, then repeat it each two weeks, or each month, or similar. CLSAC takes a different approach – it goes less often, but it goes to the venues the community thinks are best, whether that be a refuge, a radio station, a community hall or a school. It might stay in town for three or four days, going to two or three venues a day. It seeks to maximise its reach by taking advice from communities on what might work best.

Most of CLSAC’s staff are lawyers and paralegals (and one financial counsellor) who offer advice and support to deal with disputes over housing, loans, credit, electricity bills, scams, Centrelink decisions and police actions. The majority of CLSAC’s staff are Aboriginal people. They work with members of the Stolen Generations to get reparations under the Stolen Generations Reparation Scheme. They work with Aboriginal women in custody to get or keep public housing. They team up with other Legal Aid lawyers who deal with family law, care and protection matters and work and development orders, and with the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT and community legal centres. At times, they team up with agencies such as the Electricity & Water Ombudsman NSW, Revenue NSW and social housing providers.

We found CLSAC to be a warm and compassionate legal service, which may seem a slightly unusual set of words to put together. But it’s true – CLSAC has grown steadily because Aboriginal people use its services, trust it, and tell family and friends, who then use the service. Word of mouth is a strong recommendation.

The critical factors that drive its success are cultural knowledge, legal knowledge, CLSAC’s client focus, its deep engagement with communities, its deep respect for clients, and a supportive service home.

 

The cultural knowledge is embedded in the Aboriginal staff’s own identity, connections, locatedness in and experience of local histories and protocols, and motivation to convey that to other CLSAC staff, assisting and enhancing their self-awareness, roles and boundaries, to deliver flexible services attuned to and accepted by communities in which the service is located.

The legal knowledge is essential to providing legal services, supported by clarity of information and options conveyed by, to and with clients, prioritisation of needs and actions, follow-up and identification of future risks and strengths.

The client focus in practical terms means holding outreaches when and where it suits clients, in a way that suits them, and engaging respectfully about their lives to see how CLSAC can support and empower them.

The deep engagement is place-based and is with individuals, communities, community partners, with the client’s life and circumstances, with the legal and other issues faced by the client, and with the structural issues that are part of the reasons those legal and other issues exist. Deep engagement only comes from commitment to this, and the other critical success factors.

Deep respect is evidenced by being informed about local history and cultural protocols, providing staff with access to and updates on cultural awareness training, local information and supporting partners to connect sensitively to Aboriginal individuals and communities, as well as understanding power dynamics and the right of clients to their own solutions.

A supportive service home means secure funding, organisational champions, working relationships with other divisions and teams, good governance, support in advocacy and lobbying about systemic issues and reform, and a fit with national and state policy. At a practical level we note that Legal Aid NSW leadership supports CLSAC to operate in a manner desired by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, recognises there is ongoing unmet legal need and understands that there are opportunities available to it to continue to grow.

Other critical success factors are trust, compassion, relationships, time, flexibility, support for staff and support by staff.

 

Legal Aid NSW and the CLSAC leadership have some issues to consider. How quickly should they move to Aboriginal leadership, so as to support the entrenchment of the service in Aboriginal communities and to give voice to its belief in Aboriginal self-determination? How best to bring in criminal and family law services? How best to prepare all of Legal Aid NSW to conduct its services in the way Aboriginal communities require? How best to develop further cooperation with the Aboriginal Legal Service ACT/NSW and the network of community legal centres? How to become more holistic – can more financial counsellors be added to the service? Social workers? Field officers? Community liaison officers? Community development officers?

And there is a more basic question to consider – when will funding to Aboriginal community-led organisations be reinstated so Aboriginal communities have greater control over their futures? There’s no need to take it away from mainstream organisations, as the entire legal services sector is underfunded to the tune of more than $310 million a year, according to the Law Council of Australia. More is needed, now.

Dr Mark Ragg is an Adjunct Fellow at Girra Maa, the Indigenous Health Discipline, UTS and director of Ragg & Co. Associate Professor Megan Williams is Research Lead and Assistant Director, National Centre for Cultural Competence, University of Sydney. This article was first published by Croakey Health Media in June 2020.

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Mark Ragg
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