Health and justice partnerships improving access to the law

Elizabeth Curran

Lawyers, health workers and counsellors are collaborating to improve access to the law for disadvantaged communities, according to an ANU research paper.

ANU Lawyer and researcher Dr Elizabeth Curran is drawing on her ten years’ experience as a lawyer in a legal service co-located with a health service in a disadvantaged inner Melbourne suburb.  They are known as Health Justice Partnerships.

The aim of Dr Curran’s research was simple: reach people who need legal help but are not currently getting it.  How to make that happen was not so straightforward.

Community law centres are in the midst of a worsening funding crisis against a backdrop of increasing client demand and case complexity. On the client side, only 13 per cent of people in disadvantaged communities seek help from a lawyer because of a multitude of barriers: lack of finances, inability to see a problem as having a legal solution and low education levels, among them.

Curran’s research involved working with a range of service providers to examine the impact and effectiveness of putting lawyers in multi-disciplinary practices – alongside health practitioners and social workers – to better reach people with legal problems.

“It is now widely accepted that unresolved legal problems result in poorer health and social outcomes for people,” Dr Curran said.

“The traditional way lawyers provide advice is through a client appointment, whereas patients are much more likely to just drop-in to a health centre,” Dr Curran said. “When there is a lawyer just across the corridor it takes the pressure off health and social workers who are uncomfortable about giving advice outside of their expertise.  The health worker can easily and casually make a referral to a lawyer.”

As one social worker put it: “having a solicitor available made it easier as a counsellor not to be drawn into giving advice outside my area of expertise.  Because the lawyer is accessible, the client readily accepted my referral.”

“Also my interaction with the health and social workers resulted in them being better able to identify that their client could benefit from legal advice,” Dr Curran said.

While improving access to the law was one aspect of Dr Curran’s research, her paper also found that getting people to return for a second consultation was critical to resolving legal problems.

“In one evaluation 86 per cent of people interviewed had used secondary consultations and agreed they were beneficial.  My research found there were a range of critical factors in getting clients to return for a second consultation.

“Firstly, a lawyer being on-site was important because it meant we could opportunistically reach clients.  Secondly, the type of lawyer under a Health Justice Partnership model was important.  Lawyers who were proactive about interacting with health professionals, unconcerned by hierarchy or processes and could inject themselves and their knowledge into the clinic experienced the most success in reaching and retaining clients.

“Additionally, where secondary consultations occurred clients received better help which resulted in positive impacts, such as fewer drug relapses or just simply reduced stress.

“One of the lessons of my research is that having lawyers working collaboratively with non-lawyers, although not without its challenges, is proving effective at targeting those who are excluded from getting legal assistance.”

Dr Elizabeth Curran

Honorary Associate Professor

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  Director, GDLP/Page Contact:  Program Coordinator, GDLP