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Effectiveness of state, territory and Commonwealth government policies on regional and remote Indigenous communities

CHAIR  —I welcome Ms Tricia Price from Legal Aid Queensland. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has previously been provided to you. As a government official you will not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy, although this does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policy or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. I now invite you to make a short opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks I will invite members of the committee to put some questions to you.

Ms Price —Thank you. Legal Aid Queensland provides legal services and legal assistance to disadvantaged Queenslanders. I am from the Cairns office, and we have a large number of disadvantaged people in our region, predominantly of Indigenous background. Our mission is to achieve fair outcomes in the justice system and our vision is to be part of a fairer justice system in Queensland that responds to the diverse needs of disadvantaged people. We do that by working with other legal service providers to deliver quality legal services where they are needed and to advocate for changes in the justice system around the state. We are committed to the delivery of appropriate legal services in remote and regional Indigenous communities and we recognise that some of those communities have social and economic indicators and geographical remoteness which create barriers to accessing our services.

Legal Aid Queensland have developed whole-of-organisation strategies to address issues of disadvantage in this area. We employ a Brisbane based Indigenous policy officer to provide specialist Indigenous policy support to our organisation and to guide the development of the Indigenous strategy. Our strategy has been developed to remove the barriers to the use of mainstream legal services by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and our particular focus is women and their families living in those remote and regional communities. We are not the primary service provider for criminal law services and regard the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service as that service agency. We do, however, provide criminal legal services to Indigenous communities in cases where there are conflicts or where the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service cannot assist.

Our strategy is really focused on raising awareness of our services in those communities and increasing access to those services—again, particularly for women and their families. We ensure that our services are provided in a culturally appropriate way and we conduct community legal education in the communities. We have an Indigenous information hotline that is specifically dedicated to Indigenous clients calling into the organisation so that they can receive priority for all legal advice and information. We have an Indigenous referral panel, which is a panel of lawyers or legal firms with specific experience in providing services of a complex nature to Indigenous clients, and it requires experience and more senior practitioners to be part of that panel. We also have developed best practice guidelines for providing legal services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients. We have an Indigenous staffing partnership network. We take on public interest matters concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families—for example, inquests; in the last few years we have done a number of those cases. We also provide culturally appropriate publications about our services and information for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients.

We have a pilot service to remote communities. The areas of our organisation that undertake those pilot services are in Cairns and Townsville. In both of those offices we employ Indigenous community liaison officers, and they assist as a link between communities and our organisation. We also have conducted a pilot program for the past two years in the areas of Thursday Island, Bamaga and its surrounding communities, and Cooktown, including Hope Vale and Wujal Wujal. We currently employ an Indigenous liaison officer in Bamaga who is a community woman who also provides links from the community into our organisation. In addition to the strategy itself, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients can access our services through any of our 13 regional offices and our head office in Brisbane.

Legal Aid Queensland also provides representation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients in the Cairns region under the Queensland Indigenous Alcohol Diversion Program. That is a voluntary treatment program for Indigenous clients appearing before the Magistrate’s Court for alcohol related offences. That is a trial program for three years, and it is a reimbursement arrangement whereby ATSILS provide the primary representation and Legal Aid reimburses the funds for it.

I think that concludes the range of services that we target for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients throughout Queensland and the Cairns region, particularly the cape. We also have an outreach service to Ravenshoe, Tully and Cooktown, which has a large Indigenous clientele.

CHAIR —Thank you, Ms Price. I have a couple of points to clarify before I go to the committee for questions. You mentioned a best practice guide in terms of providing legal assistance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Is there a bound version that you could perhaps provide to the committee?

Ms Price —I can certainly provide a copy of the guidelines.

CHAIR —Thank you for that. You spoke about the Indigenous community liaison officers. Can you tell me about the nature of their employment—whether it is full-time or part-time, whether they work for other organisations as well—and the nature of their backgrounds and training?

Ms Price —The primary background required is that they have strong community links, so that they are known in the community. I suppose a good colloquial description is ‘a good go-to person’. So they are identified by their communities, in their communities, as somebody people can go to for assistance, and they link people into our organisation. Our Indigenous liaison officer in Bamaga is employed on a contract of 10 hours per week. That is a casual arrangement, but it is a set 10 hours per week. It was aimed to enable somebody to still be receiving some kind of benefit, particularly if they were a woman with a family, and still have an opportunity for employment. We provide training for the on the ground in the community. We also have brought our ILOs to Cairns and to Townsville for training and for them to get together and meet people in the regional office.

Senator CROSSIN —I chair the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee. Over the last year or so the references committee did a comprehensive inquiry into funding of community legal aid. I do not know whether you are aware of that inquiry or our report. We typically concluded that your sector is significantly underfunded and that you could do a lot more and be even more effective with additional resources. I wondered whether you wanted to provide us with a comment about your funding level and how you exist, or your capacity to improve your services with additional funding. What are you not doing that you think you could do or could do better if you had additional funding?

Ms Price —It is a difficult question for me to answer in terms of commenting on funding. Questions of specific funding fall outside the confines of my brief from my organisation. The nature of my position is such that I am not able to comment on it, because I just do not have that knowledge. What I can say in terms of our service delivery, which is in the paper that I intend to table at the conclusion of this hearing, is that we have had to scale back some of our operations because the cost has been found to be prohibitive. The cost of travel and of literally being in the communities is very expensive.

Senator CROSSIN —Do you have a breakdown, such as a graph or an indication, of the sorts of cases you deal with? Would a large percentage of them be criminal cases?

Ms Price —No. The reason for that is that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service is the primary service delivery agency for criminal law matters. As I indicated earlier, if there are issues of legal conflict, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service is not able to take on a matter, we will assist and provide funding. We also take on matters where we are directly approached by Indigenous clients from remote areas to fund their matters. The types of matter that we predominantly deal with in our service would be child protection. That forms a significant proportion of what we do. Issues relating to debt, consumer protection, tenancy, health and domestic violence also form a big proportion of what we do.

Senator MOORE —Like DVOs.

Ms Price —Assisting clients in obtaining domestic violence orders or variations thereof, yes, because the service is focused primarily at women and their families.

Senator MOORE —So it is civil matters really.

Ms Price —Yes. There is a small proportion of family law, depending on the community that we go into, in some more than others.

Senator MOORE —How many staff are at the centre? Give me an idea of how big it is.

Ms Price —In Cairns there is myself as senior solicitor and five other lawyers. In terms of travelling, we have one lawyer who does the more remote travel and she travels with the community liaison officer. Two of the other lawyers do more of the short-term travel, day travel. We have six administrative staff in the office.

Senator CROSSIN —Do you have a bush court system here in the state?

Ms Price —If a bush court is similar to what we call the Murri Court, yes.

Senator CROSSIN —I am talking about an ordinary magistrate’s court having a sitting in communities.

Ms Price —Yes, in every community there is a magistrate’s court. There is a magistrate’s court in Thursday Island with a registrar, and that registrar, as I understand it, looks after Bamaga. There is a courthouse in Bamaga, and there is a courthouse in each other community in Cape York. That includes Kowanyama, Pormpuraaw—

Senator CROSSIN —The magistrates would fly from here to hear civil matters?

Ms Price —Yes.

Senator CROSSIN —DPP would go from here?

Ms Price —DPP is different. If you are talking about the magistrates court matters, they have two circuits a month that travel the Cape with the police prosecutors. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service primarily look after that. The High Court travel to some of the communities. I know they have travelled to Thursday Island, Cooktown, Pormpuraaw. I am not sure off the top of my head which other communities, but that is when the DPP goes with them.

Senator CROSSIN —That gives me an idea. And interpreters. Is there an interpreter service here in Queensland, or how do you get on with getting people to understand what you are doing for them?

Ms Price —Interpreters for courts are in my experience very difficult because there is a lack of accredited interpreters. That is the bottom line.

Senator CROSSIN —But Queensland has an interpreter service?

Ms Price —Not a coordinated one, as I understand it. There are various people in various communities who, as I understand it, are accredited, but otherwise it is not like the translating and interpreting service that is run by the Commonwealth where you can just ring up and ask for a particular kind of interpreter.

Senator CROSSIN —In the Northern Territory there is an NT interpreter service and you can ring up and get usually a person in that region who speaks that language to assist.

Ms Price —I am not aware of any such service in Queensland.

Senator CROSSIN —So you do not use interpreters in your work?

Ms Price —For our service in providing advice to clients we use our community liaison officer. She can speak Aboriginal, English and Creole. Where we have difficulty with language we would use somebody in the community. They may not be accredited to the court standard but we would use somebody in the community as a support person who would be able to assist in language issues.

Senator SIEWERT —You have partly answered my question when you were talking to Senator Crossin, and that is the nature of the legal work you are doing. You said the bulk of the work in Aboriginal communities is working with women and children. Are there situations where you do have to represent them in court as well?

Ms Price —Where they are eligible for a grant of aid we will either represent them ourselves or we will refer the matter to a firm of solicitors on our preferred supplier panel.

Senator SIEWERT —I know the riders you put on your comments around funding, however you did say that you have had to cut back some services. What is the nature of those services that you have had to cut back?

Ms Price —We did have an Indigenous liaison officer on the ground in two other communities and we have had to cut back on that service because of the constraints with funding and the cost.

Senator SIEWERT —That obviously would make it more difficult for you to work with clients but has it affected your ability to represent them or provide services?

Ms Price —I suppose the difficulty comes with not having somebody in the community as a link to our service. We are based in Cairns. For there to be somebody in the community who recognises that somebody has a legal issue is half the battle most of the time—it is about recognising that the letter of demand that is now a complainant summons is a legal issue and is not something that you can just put in a drawer and forget about.

Senator SIEWERT —It is the trouble-spotting.

Ms Price —It is the trouble-spotting. As I said, it is having a go-to person. ‘Why have I got this letter?’ The go-to person says, ‘We’ve got a legal service coming up next week; we’ll get you in for an appointment to get some advice on what you need to do about that.’

Senator SIEWERT —My colleagues may need to help me remember a few of the details here. When we were in South Australia we were talking to one of the legal centres there that works with some of the remote communities, particularly in the APY Lands. They were commenting on the problems they are having in relation to domestic violence and representing women in the circuit courts because women are not able to get access to support services. Quite often it is the perpetrators who are getting legal aid and support and the women are not. Do you have similar sorts of circumstances here or do you feel that there is enough support?

Ms Price —I do not. That is why I think that our service has been targeted the way it has; that was the identified gap.

Senator SIEWERT —Okay.

Ms Price —The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services generally represents perpetrators because of the very fact that they have been charged with a criminal offence. That being the primary service there was nothing then for women and children on the other side of the fence.

Senator SIEWERT —There are some services in South Australia; there are just not enough. We know about the funding cut issue, but if you were getting an appropriate level of funding are there enough services to meet community need?

Ms Price —We are constantly looking at legal need. That is why we have established a regional legal assistance forum in each region. That regional legal assistance forum is chaired by Legal Aid and the members are: the Family Violence Prevention Unit, ATSILs, the Women’s Legal Services, Cairns Community Legal Centre. Then we can map what each service is doing in each community. Our pilot service targeted four communities of 20-odd in the Cape. We only targeted Thursday Island; Bamaga and the surrounding communities; Cooktown, which encompasses Hope Vale and Wujal Wujal; and Yarrabah. We do not provide our service to every community. The pilot has been for those four communities alone.

Senator SIEWERT —I have a couple more questions arising out of that. Can you remind me who provided the funding for the pilot?

Ms Price —Our finance section looks after that.

Senator SIEWERT —I thought you said it before and that I had not cottoned on.

Ms Price —I would not be 100 per cent sure whether it is Commonwealth or state funding. I am not sure of the split.

Senator SIEWERT —I hate to give community organisations more homework. Would you be able to let us know which funding program it is? There are lots of funding programs, and I am very interested in knowing which funding program is funding that.

Ms Price —I could take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT —That would be fantastic. As I said, I hate giving NGOs homework. The other issue I had that came out of that was what services are going into the other centres that you are not servicing.

Ms Price —In some communities the Family Violence Service is going in. They are the only other service that would be physically visiting that community.

Senator SIEWERT —So would it be fair to surmise from that that there would be towns that are not getting visits from legal support services?

Ms Price —They would certainly be getting a visit from ATSILS because the courts sit in those communities on a circuit basis, but they may not be getting a service with respect to people not having to go to court for criminal matters.

Senator SIEWERT —So we could be facing a situation in some of those centres, therefore, that is similar to a situation in South Australia, where there could be some women who are not receiving support services in the domestic violence situation we discussed earlier?

Ms Price —That is right.

Senator SIEWERT —Who would we ask about getting a map of where the services are and are not?

Ms Price —It is a multitude of organisations. Subject to any direction I might have from management in Brisbane, I am happy to provide the mapping that we have done if that is of assistance.

Senator SIEWERT —That would be great. It would help us have an understanding of who is doing what where. Thank you.

Ms Price —Subject to approval, I am happy to do that.

Senator BOYCE —With regard to the pilot program, where do the go-to people physically do their work in the communities?

Ms Price —What we do is come to an arrangement with a local organisation in the community. On Thursday Island it was the Mura Kosker Society, which is the women’s organisation in that community. They were our main hosting agency, who provided assistance to the Indigenous liaison officer. We would provide resources for phone, fax, paper, a filing cabinet, information and all of that stuff, and on occasion they have been housed in that organisation, but they have also been working part time for that organisation, so we have had one person basically doing two jobs. In other centres it has been the justice centre. We have also ensured that where it is a women’s organisation we make time to go see clients at a neutral place like the courthouse while we are in that community. That way we can see men as well, because men do have civil issues.

Senator BOYCE —Exactly. I was particularly interested in that because where they are would affect how much they were used and how they were viewed.

Ms Price —And that assists in their support.

Senator BOYCE —You have told us a little bit about what they do. What else do they do?

Ms Price —In their 10 hours a week?

Senator BOYCE —Yes. What are some more examples of the sorts of things that they would do to assist people?

Ms Price —They would assist clients in filling out forms and getting those forms to us so that if they need urgent representation in court they could get their legal aid application completed and to us so that it can be processed in the Cairns office. They would spend time talking to other organisations in the community about the legal needs are in community legal education. For example, schools had an issue with the rights of young people when dealing with the police. That would be fed back to us so that we could provide, perhaps, a CLE when we next went into the community. The Indigenous liaison officer would help get that organised. They make sure that our visits to the community are advertised. They keep us informed of any things that might be happening in the community; if there has been a plethora of travelling salesmen and there are issues that come out of that, they will let us know about it. They are really the link between the community and our organisation.

Senator BOYCE —We have spent some time in Weipa and Bamaga. There was some concern there about the prospect of an alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre in Weipa that was supposed to have been completed by now but has not been. Have you had any dealings with repercussions of the alcohol management plan and the fact that there has not been that final delivery and follow through?

Ms Price —Not so much that, but I will say that our work really comes at the pointy end of the stick. There are a number of issues in various communities—housing, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, mental health issues—that are social issues that require address, and when they are not addressed people require our services. We have not been involved so much in the alcohol management plans. I will say that having a rehabilitation centre north of Cairns would be enormously useful.

Senator BOYCE —If you are going to have an alcohol management plan you need a rehabilitation centre. The other issue that was suggested to us was that there should be some juvenile detention centre or low-security detention centre on the western side of the cape for people with relatively minor crimes. Does your organisation have a view on that/

Ms Price —It is very difficult for clients and for families at the present time because of the fact that the only detention centre, Cleveland, is in Townsville. For young women it is Brisbane. That is a considerable distance. It is very difficult to have contact with family if the family cannot travel. So would we support whether a further detention centre should be established, we would support one that would be closer to where young people’s families are to enable them to keep that connection with their families. It is quite a distance away where it is.

Senator BOYCE —The other issue that came out of that was the fact that there was virtually no assistance for people to return to community at the end of their detention.

Ms Price —Are you talking about adults or children?

Senator BOYCE —I understood from the evidence we were given that it is both, but you might have more knowledge.

Ms Price —Physically returning to the communities?

Senator BOYCE —Yes—that you could literally be put out the gate and told, ‘There you go.’

Ms Price —From my experience with the majority of my juvenile clients, if they are released from detention the Department of Communities does arrange for them to be returned to the community. I know that sometimes presents logistical issues because of flight times and whether or not it is appropriate for a child to travel on a bus from Townsville to Cairns, whether or not they need to be accompanied, who is going to meet them at the bus station—all of those things.

Senator BOYCE —Theoretically.

Ms Price —I understand practically that the department does do that. I could be wrong, but I my understanding has always been that when Lotus Glen Correctional Centre releases somebody here in Mareeba or up on the tablelands they are repatriated to the community that they come from.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you.

CHAIR —Before we finish up, I have one quick question. I am not sure if you are aware in your experience of the frequency with which the court may say to an individual that they are not allowed to return to a particular community. It has been put to us that sometimes they have to then use the facilities of outstations and those sorts of things. What is your experience in that regard?

Ms Price —I have had experience of that primarily in bringing bail applications to the higher courts where it has resulted from decisions in the Magistrates Court or the Childrens Court for a person to be given a bail condition not allowing them to return to their community. That is particularly difficult with juveniles because where else do they go? Who is going to supervise them? What support do they get? That has been my experience in bringing applications to have those conditions removed or varied, because it has made it practically impossible for a 15- or 16-year-old—

CHAIR —Some of these eventually end up in outstations near the community so that by the letter of the law they are abiding by the court’s decision but they are staying as close as they can.

Ms Price —I am not aware of that, but I am aware that there are juveniles that have been left adrift because they cannot return to their community as part of their bail conditions but there is no other support in place for them.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Ms Price. If there are any further questions from the committee, we will place those questions with you on notice through the secretariat. I understand you are going to provide us with a copy of those guidelines. If there is further information or a further submission you wish to provide, please provide that through the secretariat.

Ms Price —Thank you.

[2.25 pm]