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On 14 October 2008, the NSW Legal Assistance Forum (NLAF) hosted a forum on the legal needs of prisoners at the Law Society of NSW. The forum was facilitated by Dr Eileen Baldry, Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of NSW who has over 20 years experience in research and reform relating to prisoners.

The 40 registered participants included representatives from the NSW Department of Corrective Services (DCS), Legal Aid NSW (Legal Aid), Law and Justice Foundation of NSW (LJF), Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited (ALS), LawAccess NSW, NSW Attorney General’s Department, NSW Ombudsman’s Office, Law Society of NSW, NSW Bar Association, Criminal Justice CEO’s Group, Community Restorative Centre NSW, DLA Phillips Fox, Sydney University Law Society, Redfern Community Legal Centre, Hawkesbury Nepean Community Legal Centre, Justice Action, NSW Council for Intellectual Disability, and the Women in Prison Advocacy Network.

The purpose of the forum was to address findings in the recently released research report, Taking Justice into custody: the legal needs of prisoners (2008). The report is part of Law and Justice Foundation’s Access to Justice and Legal Needs (A2JLN) Research Program which aims to identify the access to justice and legal needs of disadvantaged people in NSW.

The objective of the forum was to develop a number of viable and achievable strategies to address key issues raised in the research. Consistent with the research, the scope was limited to adults in full time prison custody and people who had been recently released.

The forum was opened by Geoff Mulherin, Chair of NLAF and Director of LJF, and Alan Kirkland, CEO of Legal Aid introduced Dr Eileen Baldry.

Dr Baldry provided the contextual framework for the forum discussing the huge growth in prison numbers, the risk management framework, more intensive post release supervision and management, and staffing changes within DCS.
Suzie Forell, Senior Researcher at LJF and co-author of Taking Justice into custody, gave an overview of the research into prisoner’s legal needs.

There were three thematic workshops to consider strategies: information, education and referral; advice and representation; and community development and consumer advocacy.

Information, education and referral: Chair – Sue Scott, LJF

The strategies developed by this workshop were:

  1. Improve knowledge of inmates and staff about strategies to address legal issues
    1. Screening DVDs such as Back on track in cells
    2. Use Back on track and other resources to do CLE
    3. Include relevant legal info and referral information in the induction program Use IDC to assist with this.
    4. Have information relevant to prisoners available at courts, CLCs, Legal Aid. For example could use court support volunteers.
    5. Internet access to relevant legal research tools available
    6. Ensure that verbal information is given as well as written due to low literacy levels
    7. Include info about the law and legal services in literacy programs.
    8. Make staff aware of the range of legal assistance, particularly in the area of civil law. Staff training at academy and ongoing, particularly in relation to what different legal services provide.
  2. A community liaison person in each prison to act as a contact for community education initiatives(preferably from Offender Services and Programs)
  3. Prisoner access to phones for legal calls (increasing time limit and number of phones, improving location of phones, reviewing numbers on prisoner phone cards and LawAccess referral numbers )
  4. Regular expos at prisons (including better collaboration between agencies about attendance).

Advice and representation workshop: Chair – John McKenzie, ALS

The strategies developed by this workshop were:

  1. Improve /increase access to telephones by inmates by:
    1. Making better use of the telephones outside the AVL suites (that inmates use to speak to their solicitor before an AVL)
      Telephone calls to inmates could be booked by solicitors in the same way that they book AVL conferences.
    2. An agreed time window when lawyers can call gaols.
    3. Legal Aid – consider providing a free call service for inmates to phone private solicitors assigned legal aid work.
    4. LawAccess – consider capacity to transfer calls from inmates to private solicitors assigned legal aid work.
  2. A Prisoners Community Legal Centre – to coordinate and facilitate Pro Bono Schemes providing civil law advice and representation for prisoners.
    (The Homeless Persons Legal Service (PILCH) has demonstrated success in doing this)
  3. LawAccess as Hub
    Consider expanding services of LawAccess to:
    1. transfer calls from inmates to their solicitors
    2. have a website bulletin board containing relevant information about legal services such as training dates and lock downs, or alternatively, DCS could provide this information on a website.

Community development and consumer advocacy: Chair – Kirsten Cameron, Legal Aid

The strategies developed by this workshop were:

  1. Improve communication with prisoners
    1. By using the Inmate Development Committees
    2. Through regular contact with:
      1. the General Manager of each prison
      2. the Senior Education Officer
    3. Noticeboards, websites and other gaol appropriate technology (DVDs, telephone kiosks) and writing up wins and losses (lessons learnt).
  2. Training exchange -
    1. ‘Pathways and referrals’ – DCS staff and inmates
    2. ‘Prison reality’ for legal service providers (Legal Aid, ALS, CLCs) and NGOs.

A plenary followed the workshops at which the proposed strategies of each workshops were presented, and participants had an opportunity to ask question and comment.

Rhonda Booby from DCS and Brian Sandland from Legal Aid then spoke about the viability of the proposed strategies.

Rhonda Booby, DCS, gave the following response:

Good viable ideas include:

  • showing legal education DVDs on in-circuit prison TV that prisoners can access in their cells - DCS is piloting inmates making their own TV programs that are shown on the prison in-circuit TV
  • using legal education material in inmate literacy programs
  • rolling out expos to prisons across NSW - a good way for inmates to make contact with agencies
  • Making better use the telephones outside the AVL suites by putting in place a system that allows solicitors to book phone calls in the same way as they book AVL conferences
  • Prisoners CLC
  • DCS website bulletin board containing relevant information about legal services but there may be resource issues about the capacity to keep it immediately updated e.g. re lock downs
  • the possibility of including the phone numbers of local community centres on the phone cards of prisoners in regional gaols.

Doubtful proposals include:

  • Providing legal information at inmate induction when people are not ready to receive it. They go away thinking that they have the information and may be less receptive to receiving it when it is offered at a later, more appropriate, time.
  • Centralised staff training – a big exercise and the information goes out of date quickly. A better approach may be providing brochures.

Not viable proposals include:

  • Extra phone lines - Telco will not provide additional phone lines where this represents an over investment in infrastructure. There may be particular areas where DCS could subsidise extra lines, but relay we need a more systemic solution.
  • New Community Liaison positions would be too expensive. (There was discussion that the workshop proposal envisaged identifying someone in an existing position as the contact person for legal services)
  • Training inmates as a source of legal information for other inmates – there are difficulties with any indication that one inmate is better at giving advice than another.

Brian Sandland, Legal Aid, made the following comments:

  • Legal Aid’s Prisoners Legal Service (PLS) provides legal representation and advice to prisoners about parole and other matters relating to their incarceration.
  • A review of the PLS was conducted in September 2006. Some recommendations have been implemented and some are in the process of been implemented.
  • Legal Aid has increased the resources of the PLS and has expanded services to include family and civil law
  • A family law solicitor and civil law solicitor have been appointed to the PLS.
  • Legal Aid has also launched Back of Track, a series of legal education DVDs about civil and family law problems that are commonly experienced by prisoners. We hope that this will encourage prisoners to seek legal advice about these sorts of problems.
  • There is a huge area of unmet legal need.
  • Tapping the resources of large firms is one way that we might be able to meet the needs of prisoners in the civil law area.
  • Assistance in meeting family law needs may need some extra work.
  • We need to learn how to make better use of the resources of LawAccess.
  • There has been a significant increase in telephone calls from prisoners referred from LawAccess, and Legal Aid needs to monitor this.
  • Today, there were good practical discussions and possible solutions.
  • For example, the book system for inmates to make appointments with the PLS does not always work and we may need to consider a system that leaves a paper trial that can be followed up.
  • It was also good to get a perspective of other agencies.
  • For example, we learnt that we did not have as much access to welfare workers in gaols because they have different priorities under the new DCS The Way Forward program.
  • There is great potential for us to work together to improve access to legal services for prisoners.

Dr Baldry indicated that the NLAF organising committee would write up what had occurred at the forum. She noted the need for closer and more regular interaction between service providers and DCS. She suggested that there should be an accounting in 12 months time as everyone who participated in the forum, in giving their time and energy, had a right to know what might come out of it.

Hugh Macken, President of the Law Society closed the forum. He said that the report on the outcome of the forum would be tabled at the next NLAF meeting. NLAF has a proven track record of working collaboratively to improve access to justice, and the outcomes of the forum represent important opportunities for improving access to justice for prisoners.

The organising committee for the forum on the legal needs of prisoners are of the view that the objectives were achieved, and look forward to working to progress the identified strategies.

Annmarie Lumsden
20 October 2008