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Education and Employment References Committee
16/07/2015
Private vocational education and training providers

DWYER, Mr William, Credit and Debt Solicitor, Redfern Legal Centre

MORLEY, Ms Elizabeth, Principal Solicitor, Redfern Legal Centre

ACTING CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliament privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has received your submission. I know invite you to make a short opening statement, and at the conclusion of your remarks I will invite senators to ask questions.

Mr Dwyer : Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the committee. Redfern Legal Centre is a not-for-profit community legal centre. It has been providing free legal services since 1977. We run a specialist credit and debt practice, which focuses upon financial and consumer issues affecting vulnerable and disadvantaged people.

We recognise that vocational training can play an important role in helping marginalised people to reskill and re-engage with social and economic participation. Unfortunately, Redfern Legal Centre has witnessed the systemic exploitation of the VET FEE-HELP loan scheme by private training colleges through the use of misleading and unconscionable marketing practices to churn student enrolments. Our particular concerns relate to door-to-door sales by marketing agents, who act on a commission basis, on behalf of RTOs. We have seen a deliberate targeting of acutely vulnerable people, particularly those living in high-density public housing in the Redfern-Waterloo area of inner Sydney. Also, we have seen marketing agents approaching people directly outside Centrelink officers in Redfern.

The marketing agents have promoted courses as free or government funded, which is misleading, and they have offered laptops and iPads as inducements for people to sign up to VET FEE-HELP loans. The public is currently bearing the cost of these bad debts, many of which will not be repaid. We believe the RTOs should have greater incentives to police the conduct of their marketing agents and take greater responsibility for the use of the VET FEE-HELP loan scheme.

Senator KIM CARR: Thanks to both of you for appearing here today. You state in your submission that there have been these examples of mistreatment of your clients by, I take it, private providers. Are there any public providers involved in these scam operations?

Mr Dwyer : Not that I am aware of.

Senator KIM CARR: You were saying that the majority of the RLC clients have been signed up by marketing agents. Is it by brokers?

Mr Dwyer : That is right. The marketing agents act on a commission basis on behalf of, often, a number of different RTOs that we are aware of.

Ms Morley : Not all have been signed up through agents. Some have been signed directly by the RTO.

Senator KIM CARR: How many people are we talking about, in your direct experience?

Mr Dwyer : We have acted on behalf of five or six, but, anecdotally, we hear that across the board it is a far greater issue.

Senator KIM CARR: Of the clients, you say that there are some agencies, some private providers, doing this directly?

Ms Morley : In one instance for which I was engaged in the case work, yes. The client had made inquiries, when she was getting her hair cut, of the particular RTO and she was led to believe that she essentially would have free training.

Senator KIM CARR: Can you name the provider?

Ms Morley : In that particular matter it was the Australasian College, I think.

Mr Dwyer : Australasian College Broadway, I think.

Senator KIM CARR: I have dealt with these people before many years ago. I gather it is the same. It may well be another company with a similar name, but I do recall the name from other occasions. You are putting to us, though, that the regulatory powers, under the National Vocational Education Training Act and the ASQA standards, have little or no deterrent effect upon the behaviour of marketing agents. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Mr Dwyer : My understanding of the ASQA standards is that they apply to the RTOs directly. The RTOs engage in contractual relationships with their marketing agents, and there are often sub-agency relationships with the marketing agents and the people working for them. What we see is that there is little oversight by the RTOs about the conduct of the agents. Their incentive really is to get the number of enrolments up by any way they can. There is also little incentive for the RTOs to police the conduct of their agents.

Senator KIM CARR: You would be aware that recent government changes have been made?

Mr Dwyer : That is right.

Senator KIM CARR: But they do not go to the question of marketing agents or brokers?

Mr Dwyer : No. I think they are a good start. They certainly go to the issues around promoting the courses as free or government funded, and the issue about using laptops and iPads as inducements to sign up. But there is no explicit ban on door-to-door sales. We see that as a real issue of concern where people are at a special disadvantage, quite often—they are at home by themselves, and particularly living in public housing, where they might be at other disadvantages, having mental illness and a range of other things. They have limited powers to tell a pushy marketing agent on their front door that, no, they do not in fact want to sign up for a course. We really want to see a blanket ban on door-to-door sales.

Senator KIM CARR: It has been put to us by some interests that consumer law provides protections for people who have be signed up by these unscrupulous providers. What is your experience of the enforcement on consumer laws?

Mr Dwyer : The real practical difficulty we see with enforcement is tracking down who in fact the marketing agents are, which companies they work for and which RTOs they are representing. Quite often our clients might come to us with the first name of a marketing agent, but there are no other identifiers and it is very difficult for us to investigate it. We do not know which company to pursue. Our clients often have limited capacity of their own to pursue it through consumer law remedies, through the Civil and Administration Tribunal. It is also difficult to attribute back to the RTOs specific instances of misconduct and breaches of the consumer law by marketing agents, and to hold the RTOs liable for the breaches of the consumer law. We can certainly allude to it, but in practice it would be very difficult to do on a case by case basis.

Ms Morley : We expect, as well, that there are a number of people who do not yet know that they have a debt, and will not know for some time. They have signed up and they have not attended and they have been told the course is free. So we expect that there will be people who in two, three, four or five years time will find that they have this problem, and maybe the RTO still exits or maybe it does not at that time.

Senator KIM CARR: Ms Morley, how do you expect that it happens that people end up with a debt but no qualification—that people are being exploited in this way? What is your explanation for this?

Ms Morley : As my colleague has explained, we have a very vulnerable consumer base. They sometime find the only way to get a door-to-door salesperson out of the apartment is to agree to whatever is there. There are hard-sell techniques that encourage people to sign up. They are told it is free and will not cost them anything. There is also the instance of people being sold up for things like management courses when they have absolutely no hope of doing that, and being told they have to do more than they want to do. They want to do hairdressing and they are signed up to managing a hairdressing salon. So there is a range of reasons. We have seen it before in the maths tutoring programs and things like that that were sold through shopping centres—that kind of technique. People want to engage, they want to get trained, and they are signed up without any consideration of whether that person could actually ever do that particular course.

Senator KIM CARR: Have you been following what is happening in Victoria?

Ms Morley : Only broadly speaking.

Senator KIM CARR: Do you have any contact with organisations similar to your own that operate in Melbourne?

Ms Morley : I have not on this matter, no.

Senator KIM CARR: I raise this because I am wondering whether the problems that have been uncovered because of the change of government in Victoria are relevant to the experiences in Sydney. Is it possible that what is going on or has been going on in Melbourne is also going on in Sydney?

Mr Dwyer : It is probably a national problem. I do not really think there are particular divisions between the states about this conduct. We have heard—again anecdotally—from our colleagues in other states. I note that the Consumer Action Law Centre in Victoria has written a submission similar to ours—that this conduct has been happening across the board.

Senator KIM CARR: What sorts of debt levels are we talking about, in your experience?

Mr Dwyer : Depending on the number of different courses undertaken, I think a diploma-level course is anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000.

Ms Morley : The matter that I handled was, I think, in total around $38,000.

Senator KIM CARR: And these are people who are on social security payments?

Ms Morley : Yes.

Mr Dwyer : The vast majority of our clients would be, yes.

Senator KIM CARR: And they have very little hope of paying this?

Mr Dwyer : Next to none.

Senator KIM CARR: The argument will be that because they are income-contingent loans then the people are not directly required to pay them until such time as they are earning sufficient income. What do you say to that in terms of the direct experience you have of the clients that you represent?

Ms Morley : My client was completely traumatised. She was leaving a domestic violence situation, she had a new baby and she had not been well, and the thought of having a $38,000 debt was overwhelming and was adding to the matters that she was struggling with at the time.

Senator KIM CARR: From your clients and the experience you have through dealing with these issues on a day-to-day basis—does it have an effect on people's ability to raise credit in other areas if they have a debt of this scale?

Mr Dwyer : I certainly think it could. Many of our clients are unfortunately unlikely to be in a position to get a mortgage or get into the—

Senator KIM CARR: But they may want a personal loan and want debt relief in other areas—

Mr Dwyer : Certainly.

Senator KIM CARR: and it may well be that their debt history then becomes a factor. What do you say to that proposition?

Mr Dwyer : I think there is a real risk that that might be the case. It entrenches their disadvantage really. They are not able to get credit to start a small business or get their lives back on track.

Senator KIM CARR: So it is not just a question of the trauma that it causes; it actually has material effects on the way in which people live.

Mr Dwyer : Certainly.

Ms Morley : My particular client's concern is trying to provide for her child into the future. To the extent that she was able to establish herself and set up some kind of property or some savings or something, she wanted that to be for the benefit of her child in the event that anything happened to her. As it was, it would go to the government.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for your submission and your evidence today. It is very useful, particularly the recommendations. I want to go to your recommendation 4, the critical information summaries, for you to expand on that, dealing with the content and also the form in which that could be presented.

Mr Dwyer : We have seen critical information summaries used with some success in the telco space, where there was a lot of misinformation and uncertainty about the types of telco agreements people would be signed up to. What was mandated was a simple maximum one- to two-page document which spelled out the critical aspects of the agreement.

The things that were suggested be included really go to the arrangements for the course and things such as cooling-off rights, which we think are critical. The total cost of the course and the duration of the course should be disclosed up-front. Critical census dates are paramount so that consumers are properly informed about when they can change their mind. If they change their mind at a later stage, they should know what impact that will have on the course fees they have to pay and what other rights they might have when resiling from the agreement they made on the spot.

Senator RHIANNON: Also, what form it is presented in?

Mr Dwyer : We have given an example in the appendix to our submission that spells out our suggestions on the type of language which could be used and the critical things which should be disclosed clearly and simply so that all consumers, particularly those with low levels of financial literacy, can clearly understand the critical aspects of signing up for a VET FEE-HELP loan.

Ms Morley : These are the same kinds of disclosure requirements in many respects that are in credit law. They reflect what you are taking on and what the total amount is going to be at the end of the loan. Obviously there are estimates involved here, but some tangible illustration of what the money is going to look like after about 10 years or so is desirable. In unfair marketing practices there is always the risk that someone will say, 'Sign here. You don't need to read all that.' We have seen that sort of thing happen many a time over the years. It will not be perfect, but it may well provide a clearer outline for people about what they are actually taking on.

Senator RHIANNON: I think you might have been in the audience earlier when I was talking to one of the earlier witnesses about some issues that I have certainly come up against where people have raised with me—it has often been parents who have raised it—that a young person is not aware of who they are talking to. They only find out later if it is an agent or if it is somebody from the educational institution, the provider themselves. I noted that you covered this in your submission. Could you share with us any experiences that you have had where this has been a problem and what you think we should do.

Mr Dwyer : From our experience and the experience of our clients, there is very little identification that marketing agents are required to present. They often say that they are acting on behalf of the RTO. One of the case studies which I think speaks volumes about the conduct of marketing agents involved a client of ours from a non-English-speaking Burmese background. He had significant trauma and mental illness involving schizophrenia. He was at home on his own and was approached by someone who knocked on his door who ultimately signed him up for three different diploma-level courses with three different RTOs, none of which were appropriate for him. He could not speak English, so he could not conduct a diploma-level business course. There was no option for him to find out more about the courses or get independent advice before he was coerced to sign up on the spot.

Ms Morley : To the extent that the courses are marketed in things such as shopping centres, I think it is very difficult to tell whether someone is an agent or from an education provider. At that point, we have questioned whether the person marketing the course and signing someone up can make a proper assessment about whether or not the applicant to be a student has the educational capacity to undertake the course. We have seen in the past with things such as the people who promote photographic portfolios, maths tutoring programs and all of those kinds of things in the same environment that it is a very hard sell. The scripting that is used in that kind of marketing—and I am speaking broadly across the type of marketing that happens there—is about distracting you from any tangible aspects of what is being marketed. It is aimed, instead, at making you feel like you will be fantastic if you sign up, and then you are signed up before you know where you are and are sold far more than you actually need.

Senator RHIANNON: It is useful to hear this in order to understand what happens to people when they are in this situation. I want to go to page 4 of your submission where you speak about VET FEE-HELP. You say:

That burden can so impact on the state of mind of the student such that it is counterproductive …

That is referring to how people feel with regard to repayment. Often disadvantaged people are already under enormous pressure and the issue of debt can weigh very heavily on people. I am just interested in whether you can expand on that section. It would be useful to understand what your experience is and what you are referring to.

Ms Morley : For many of our clients who have been through hard times in one form or another—perhaps there has been domestic violence or perhaps they had an episode of disability or they still have a disability—and have been marginalised out of the community and are trying to re-enter an actual occupation that will bring them some income or just engage with an activity that will build their confidence in themselves, TAFE was what they used to do this in many respects, particularly when the TAFE courses were cheaper than they are now. What is going to happen here is that they will be saddled with these large debts now. They may have the opportunity of doing a course and get some qualification, but then suddenly they will have a debt. As I said earlier, for the client I dealt with, having that debt over her head was a significant burden that weighed her down. It was dragging her down and putting her whole situation at risk.

Senator RHIANNON: I notice in that same section of your submission you say that:

… there is a real risk that the diminutive estates of many low-income earners will be taken by the ATO to satisfy VET FEE-HELP debts.

Have you been able to quantify that? Clearly, it would be hard. But, amongst your clients, do you have any quantitative data on that? It is obviously very serious.

Ms Morley : I guess it is as much as they have. Some of them will never have much. They might only have their most recent Centrelink payment at the time they die. Others will have a little more for one reason or another. What they have is probably to support the rest of their family—their children or their partner—who may also be in fairly restricted circumstances at the time. So ongoing hardship then impacts on the family because those funds and that support are taken.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: I have a couple of questions. Thank you for your evidence and the work you do. I want to get your comments around the recent changes in this sector because they go directly towards addressing some of the issues you have raised. Incentives such as iPads are no longer able to be used. Can you provide some comments around that. Do you think that is a positive change?

Mr Dwyer : I think it is definitely a good first step. The particular issue of using a laptop or iPad as an inducement was a critical one because vulnerable people were being told, 'Here is a free laptop. All you have to do is sign on the dotted line.' They did not have any understanding of the true cost of that. So I think it is a good first step. But, unfortunately, what we see is that the door-to-door marketing and the spruiking outside Centrelink continues. Even though there are some restrictions on how they are scripted, the high-pressure sales continue.

ACTING CHAIR: It is not just with this industry that this highly targeted marketing strategy that you are talking about is used on this particular cohort of clients outside Centrelink or door to door, is it? I think, Ms Morley, you mentioned photographic—

Ms Morley : Yes, although the debts involved in that are smaller.

ACTING CHAIR: Absolutely. I take that on board. Particularly with this cohort, the sense of that debt is significant.

Ms Morley : And at the time they are marketed they are not marketed as free, which is essentially what is happening in this industry.

ACTING CHAIR: In this instance—absolutely falsifying the conversation.

Ms Morley : And the incentive in this industry for the RTO is that they know they are going to get paid by the government. The photographic organisation—

ACTING CHAIR: Has to get money from the clients themselves.

Ms Morley : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Absolutely. I take all that on board, but it is quite a defined strategy in terms of marketing. The second thing I wanted to comment on was the census date change that has been made. Previously the RTO would get 100 per cent of the government subsidy after only 20 per cent of the course had been completed. That is a huge incentive to front-load your operations and put all your efforts into getting that signature on the bottom line, with less concern about completion rates. Do you think now having four different census dates throughout the course is a positive change? We have heard from some providers this morning that it is an overly burdensome regulatory change to their operations. Others have said that they understand it in the context. So I would really appreciate your perspective on that.

Mr Dwyer : It certainly removes the incentive just to sign up a high volume of students with no focus on ongoing student welfare and, really, no consideration of whether or not they finish the course. I think the staggered approach to payment of portions of the fees as the course is completed is a much better approach. The incentive is there for the colleges to ensure the students complete the course, not just to get them to sign up, and that is crucial.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you.

Ms Morley : Might I add to that that we do think that some consideration should be given to establishing an ombudsman in the area to resolve disputes and to including in the reasons for waiving or withdrawing from VET FEE-HELP the fact that the enrolment was obtained in unjust circumstances. Currently it is not specifically there, and you have to have hardship that arises after the census date.

ACTING CHAIR: Rather than signing whilst already in hardship?

Ms Morley : Yes, in unjust circumstances.

ACTING CHAIR: The fact that ASQA can now take action against any RTO if they are not actually providing the type of information that you state in your submission—the length of course, price et cetera—is another recent change. Is that a positive change? You can take that on notice if you are not across the detail of it.

Mr Dwyer : Sure. What we see with ASQA as a recourse and a regulator is that it is very difficult for individual complaints to be investigated. I suppose we fear that more and more of the sorts of cases we undertake will come out of the woodwork. It will be many years down the track that someone discovers they have this VET FEE-HELP debt in the background, and there is no direct recourse for them other than to go to the RTO at first instance and to go to the department of education and seek a special circumstances waiver. But I think what we would like to see is a clearer policy and procedure for how people raise those complaints about the way they were signed up, particularly if it is a few years down the track.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. That is good advice.

Senator O'NEILL: We have heard this morning suggestions that brokers need to be regulated and that the current structure, with the RTOs being responsible, is inadequate. What do you think about that?

Mr Dwyer : I think it is an important step. Currently the standards and the regulations apply exclusively to RTOs, but it is the conduct of the brokers and the marketing agents which really leads to this whole mess in the first place. They are the ones with the incentive to get high volume sales without any real focus on what happens after that. I think at the moment they are causing a lot of the problems but without much skin in the game. They can pass the buck and just keep generating their commercial profits without much care for what happens to the individual students afterwards.

Ms Morley : The RTOs need to be made clearly responsible for the acts of any of the agents that are enrolling students.

ACTING CHAIR: Is that ambiguous at the moment—that they are not responsible for somebody they have—

Ms Morley : It seems to have been raised in the cases. We think the obligation should be really clearly spelt out that the agent is the agent of the RTO, not the student, and that the RTO is responsible for any representations or anything made in relation to the courses.

Senator O'NEILL: Are there any penalties applied to RTOs that engage in these practices?

Mr Dwyer : Not that I am aware of—no financial penalties. I think it only comes down to threats against licensing of RTOs. I am not aware of civil penalties for particular misconduct.

Ms Morley : At the moment I think the industry model is to some extent premised on having the money from the government, having the security of that, and it is somewhat irrelevant whether the student actually turns up or not. Until the RTO is actually facing financial loss of a significant amount because they are enrolling students who should not be enrolled then it is not going to be an effective feedback loop to drive correct industry practices.

Senator O'NEILL: If there were an ombudsman for students to be able to report and automatically that triggered a response from the RTO where they might not only have to return the fee that they received but a penalty, do you believe that would impact on the behaviours you are seeing experienced by your clients?

Mr Dwyer : Certainly. I think it would be a really good disincentive for this sort of conduct.

Senator O'NEILL: One of the recommendations from ACPET this morning was an auditing of recorded conversations between broker agents representing RTOs as one tool of surveillance that might prevent some of the worst behaviours. What do you think about that?

Ms Morley : I have seen in marketing, not in relation to an RTO, where a person who did not speak English put on the phone to an energy provider and the agent who was there had written yes and no on a page and pointed to which one she had to say when the question was asked on the phone—

Senator O'NEILL: So, Ms Morley, you would have concerns about possible coaching, particularly for people from a non-English-speaking background?

Ms Morley : Yes.

Senator O'NEILL: As a senator for New South Wales, I want to hark back to the points raised by Senator Carr with regard to concerns for the New South Wales sector that became apparent with the change of government in Victoria, where qualifications were withdrawn for thousands of students. Given what you have seen in your intimate encounters with RTOs, on what sort of scale do you think the problem in New South Wales might be?

Mr Dwyer : I think it is endemic, unfortunately. It is really hard for us to quantify I suppose, but we hear certainly anecdotally from our clients and their neighbours and friends that particular marketing agents will target entire high-density public housing blocks. It is hard to know how many people actually sign up. I think the example of Evocca College in Victoria is a really crucial one where their pass rate was about 10 per cent of people they had in fact signed up. Our concern is that it is the tip of the iceberg and there might be many more people who realise some time in the future that they have incurred this debt.

Ms Morley : I suppose we will need some passage of time before we can see whether or not the qualifications people are obtaining have substance behind them and whether people are coming out with those skills. Our clients have not done the courses at all.

Senator O'NEILL: Can I invite you to put on the record the story of the woman you spoke about who was engaged not by a broker but by an RTO. I think you indicated that she thought she might be able to do hairdressing—

Ms Morley : Yes.

Senator O'NEILL: but was advised against doing hairdressing and was put into a hairdressing management course. Could you talk to me about the differentiation in fees that that incurred and the process that was undertaken and how you resolved it. I would like to know the outcomes of some of your case management.

Ms Morley : In that particular matter, the free haircut was attractive to her, because she was in straitened circumstances. She was talking to them and she thought that it might be nice to be a hairdresser; it would be something to move forward in life, a skill she could do. They spoke to her and told her that it would be free—that she would not have to pay, that it would be government funded, that she would be in those circumstances. She wanted to do hairdressing—hairdressing was part of the course—but she had to take the salon management course with it. She was signed up to that. She never attended. There was considerable hardship in her life around that time. When she came to us—from recollection, she was referred from a community support service—she was quite stressed about it. We contacted the college and, to do them justice, they immediately waived the debt once we approached them. However, she had approached them and had not been able to get a satisfactory outcome.

Senator KIM CARR: So it took a lawyer's letter, did it?

Mr Dwyer : It did. I think the course fees in that example were close to $30,000 for a very basic hairdressing qualification.

Senator O'NEILL: Which would take how long?

Ms Morley : I am sorry, my recollection is not entirely clear, but I think it was about 18 months.

Senator O'NEILL: I invite you to put on the record, with notice, any of the details that you think might help us in our inquiries. You indicated that you have worked on five or six cases. I invite you to tell us the outcomes you were able to achieve.

Mr Dwyer : Luckily, most of them have come to us at an early stage, where they sense something is amiss, or they have been referred from another community worker, who has picked it up. We have been able to express our concerns in writing to each of the RTOs directly. It is often close to or shortly after the census date. It has taken some coaxing in some circumstances for the RTOs to recognise misconduct. Some, to their credit, have remitted the VET FEE-HELP fees at an early stage, but, as Elizabeth mentioned, it is not something that consumers and our clients can do on their own behalf, more often than not. When they do try to raise their grievances, they are fobbed off.

Ms Morley : My client was not aware of the amount of the debt until she had gone to do her tax. It was only at that time that she became aware of the full extent of what the debt was, and that had horrified her; she had not seen it in that context and had not known that that is what it would be.

Senator O'NEILL: Given your intimate knowledge of the community you are representing in Redfern, if you were to go door to door, like the salespeople have been, and find out what is going on in those public housing sites, how many people do you think might be in dire straits and absolutely not know about it just yet?

Mr Dwyer : I think a conservative estimate would probably be 10,000, in Sydney alone.

Senator O'NEILL: Sorry, could you say that again.

Ms Morley : 10,000 marketed to. As to how many of them signed up, I think it would be hard for us to say.

Senator O'NEILL: That is a significant number of people at risk. The only way that they could find out if they are actually in debt would be how?

Mr Dwyer : They have to make inquiries with the tax office. That is really the only time that most of our clients will have any engagement with that sort of information or—

ACTING CHAIR: Which presupposes they are putting in their tax return.

Ms Morley : Yes, indeed.

ACTING CHAIR: A proportion of your clientele—

Mr Dwyer : Certainly.

Ms Morley : Which is why we are anticipating it might be some years before the full scope of the risk becomes clear.

Senator O'NEILL: But that seems to me to be particularly dangerous on a number of levels. The recovery of any funds for the government from an RTO becomes extremely marginal because some RTOs may go out of business, particularly if they are operating in this 'churning' model—I think that is how you described it earlier—and the nature of compounding interest means that the initial debt, significant as it is, would be very much higher by the time it came to somebody's attention.

Ms Morley : Indeed. And one of the concerns for us is that, even assuming a person goes through and maybe does their business services diploma or cert IV, they are looking at a $40,000 or $50,000 salary at best really. It is not often someone who is going to come out with a graduate degree goes on to a decent salary of some sort, so it is a large debt that is just accumulating—even if the vocational qualification achieves employment for them.

ACTING CHAIR: Just on the five or six cases, what time frame were they pursued? This practice has been going on for a significant amount of time, so can you give us a sense of the time over which this has occurred?

Ms Morley : Our first case would have come in—was it the beginning of or early last year?

Mr Dwyer : It was probably in the last 18 months.

Ms Morley : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Dwyer, you described it as 'endemic'. I am interested in getting a sense of how long this problem has been with the Redfern Legal Centre. Can you give us a time line for it?

Mr Dwyer : As we mentioned, the cases have come to our attention probably in the last 18 months to two years, but I suppose our concern is that there are a lot that are unidentified and that will not come to our attention. We expect to continue to see them over the course of the next few years.

Senator RHIANNON: And has it added to the workload of the centre?

Mr Dwyer : It certainly has.

Senator RHIANNON: To what degree has it added to the workload?

Mr Dwyer : Elizabeth is the principal solicitor and I am the credit and debt solicitor; we are really the only two lawyers who practice in this area. We probably see 10 clients a week, for whom we are providing direct casework and assistance to. Unfortunately, we have to turn people away or give them guidance on how they approach it themselves, but what we see is that often, without our intervention, it is going to be difficult for people to get a fair outcome. We are stretched.

Senator RHIANNON: If I am hearing you correctly, it is taking up the bulk of your time—is that correct?

Ms Morley : I do not think we can say that. We have only had, as I said, the five or six cases that have come through to us on this particular issue, so we cannot say they are taking up a substantial amount of our time, but they are time consuming to do and this work requires someone being on the ground to do it and to be alert to the kinds of issues involved.

Senator O'NEILL: Did you say 10 inquiries per week on this matter?

Mr Dwyer : No, sorry.

Ms Morley : No.

Senator O'NEILL: How often?

Ms Morley : We have had the five or six cases on this in particular.

Mr Dwyer : I would probably get an inquiry at least once a month, either directly from other community workers or other community legal centres, which are also seeing analogous issues. Our concern is that it is underreported.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence; we really appreciate it.

Mr Dwyer : Thank you.