October 07, 2020 | Federation Administration
Operating in these uncertain times in Victoria is challenging for all organisations, and for Community Legal Centres there is the added complexity of working across the court and justice systems and moving to at-home office structures.
Barwon Community Legal has not only faced these challenges, but has had the added difficulty of changing some of the services they deliver to meet differing demands.
“We recognised early that this pandemic would change the types of support the community would need from us,” Barwon Community Legal CEO Bryanna Connell said.
“We’ve added both tenancy and employment law as we knew there would be severe impacts across the community in these two areas.”
Fortunately, the organisation had worked in both those areas in the past, and had been working on specific projects in those areas before COVID-19 was detected in Australia and so was able to transition into offering that support.
Barwon Principal Lawyer Mandi Hyland said they were seeing many international students who were living in houses with six or eight others.
“A matter that may have been small or able to be worked around when you are out all day, becomes a focus point when you are stuck in the house all day with relative strangers – things such as mould on walls, noise or overcrowding, become increasingly stressful issues,” she said.
“On top of that, international students are finding they are losing financial supports not only here, due to finding themselves unemployed and ineligible for other government support, but also their families overseas may have lost jobs or businesses and can’t send them the same financial support now. These financial stresses lead to more legal issues.”
Restrictions as a result of the pandemic meant lawyers, particularly in Family Violence cases, were spending less time in court, as courts made changes to restrict the number of people in court. Access to services for Family Violence victim-survivors was limited resulting in fewer Family Violence intervention order applications being made. Lawyers representing clients with court hearings needed to take instructions and submit their requests to the court remotely, meaning less face to face advocacy and representation. Duty lawyers are now able to return to court, but usually clients are still not attending in person.
“While, this was confusing and challenging for people experiencing family violence and our lawyers, it meant our staff had more time to assist people who are facing housing, employment and other difficulties,” Ms Connell said.
“Also, our lawyers aren’t spending time on the roads commuting between towns or between the office and outreach locations.
“COVID-19 really has meant we’ve had to rethink how we work, and for us that has meant what kind of services we can and should offer to the community.”
But it’s also meant people are far more anxious in general, so issues that may not have been as stressful are now heightened.
“When dealing with us, people are often anxious and therefore it takes much more time to get instructions and assure them that we can help. When people are stressed they often don’t respond quickly to requests to do things or even remember that you asked, so matters get delayed or stall for lack of instructions or documents from the client,” Ms Hyland said.
“Unemployment always leads to more legal issues. Uncertainty about Jobkeeper/Jobseeker is an added stress, and people juggle which bills to pay.
“People who have never needed a lawyer before suddenly need our help, but they don’t necessarily know how to access that help.”
Ms Connell said they have also noticed people aren’t accessing services in the way they used to so staff have had to do more virtual outreach into the community to ensure people understand their legal rights.
“Our partnerships with community services organisations have always been important, but they have become crucial, both to assist clients to access our services, and for community workers to seek our advice on behalf of clients. We are providing considerably more secondary consultations to community workers than we previously have.”
And, as many people who are now forced to set up makeshift offices at home have found, everything takes that bit longer.
“We used to be able to put a document in front of someone and get it signed. Or clients could bring documents in to let us read them through, now that’s changed, often they’re having to describe documents over the phone, or read them out to us instead,” she said.
“And people are not all computer literate, or have access to home computers. They need us to do things for them that they could have previously done at the library or community centre themselves.
“And as we’ve all been working from home we’ve had to put in place new technology to ensure we can still deliver the services the community relies on.
“Putting that in place, adjusting to it and getting used to using new processes takes time for us and our clients, and that’s particularly challenging during these difficult times. We moved to remote working practically overnight and our team is doing a fantastic job despite all the challenges we’ve faced.”