Showcasing: Health Justice Partnership
Central and Eastern Sydney
Redfern Legal Service
Living Well domain
Experiencing legal issues for people of lived experience of mental health issues can lead to further stress and impact on an individual’s mental health. Evidence suggests that people with mental health issues or a disability are up to 10 times more likely to experience legal issues than that of the general population1.
The availability of free advice and support from a legal professional can considerably assist in addressing the legal issues and consequently have a positive impact on other social determinants including easing financial stress, addressing housing issues and ultimately assist to reduce the stress associated with the outstanding issue1.
People with a lived experience of mental health issues have indicated to us that when they are in hospital receiving support and treatment, staff do not often ask people about their personal circumstances so legal issues will not be known or seen as a priority and access to legal advice is limited.
A partnership between the Sydney Local Health District (SLHD) and the Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) has led to a dedicated program being introduced called the Health Justice Partnership (HJP). The program provides legal service support to assist people with legal issues who are receiving treatment at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
A broad range of support is often needed by people experiencing legal issues. Even small problems can lead to increased stress for an individual and advice may be costly. The types of legal support provided include addressing civil problems such as issues pertaining to tenancy, income support, rights to education, divorce, guardianship and power of attorney3. A 2012 landmark Australian study into legal need established that over one-fifth of people in Australia experience three or more legal problems in a given year, many of which are associated with increased risk of physical or mental illness. Many people seek no advice for these problems, but when they do, they are more likely to ask a non-legal advisor, such as a health professional, than a lawyer2.
Experiencing health issues with the worry of unresolved legal issues may impact on a person’s physical and/or mental health and wellbeing. Effective and affordable support early in the process can benefit a person, reduce their stress related to the issue and can often be addressed quickly without having a cumulative effect.
In response to this evidence, health and legal services are coming together to bridge the service gaps into which people and communities vulnerable to experiencing complex issues, may fall.
HJP is a growing early intervention outreach legal service with the objective of providing vulnerable clients with access to advice/advocacy over a wide range of legal needs. RLC was an early adopter of this innovative model after research showed that clients often shared their hidden legal issues with health professionals and did not seek assistance elsewhere. The HJP addresses this gap in the legal service and aims to do this in a culturally sensitive, time appropriate, confidential space for all disadvantaged clients and Aboriginal people. Building trust and rapport with the client is cornerstone to this initiative. RLC has been operating over the last four years within Sydney’s busiest hospital, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, by placing a legal practitioner at the Hospital.
The HJP also plays a key role in acting in care and protection matters aiming to keep or restore children with their families. This includes early legal advice to help families understand the Department of Communities and Justice role and responsibilities and legal processes, including preparation for case planning and Family Group Conferencing processes, access to the support services they need to address safety concerns for their children, and identify alternative actions they can take to prevent child removals (for example through the family court). The service includes support for families to negotiate contact arrangements with children removed from their care or resolve contact disputes; and advice about a range of matters.
Research has highlighted the importance of medical legal partnerships in assisting to alleviate mental health issues through the opportunities they provide for early intervention and addressing legal problems that may be detrimental to mental health3.
In mid-2018, HJP has expanded to Aboriginal service organisations within the Redfern area including: The Men’s Cave, Red-link, Redfern Medical Service and Redfern Community Health Centre. In March 2019, RLC took another significant leap forward by extending the HJP to the Dental Hospital with a further legal practitioner.
The services supported 427 clients during the period of May 2015 - 2018 with most issues requiring one off advice, task assistance or representation. The types of legal issues addressed include;
• Child protection 27%
• Family law 17%
• Tenancy 15%
• Fines & debts 12%
• Family or domestic violence 8%
• Other 20%
The RLC and SLHD Health Justice partnership will continue to provide vital support for people experiencing legal issues who are receiving treatment at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. It is hoped that this example of an effective medical-legal partnership demonstrates the value and is adopted by other health services across NSW.
1Pleasence, P, Wei, Z and Coumarelos, C, 2013, Law and disorders: illness/disability and the response to everyday problems involving the law. Updating Justice, (30).
2Coumarelos, C, Macourt, D, People, J, MacDonald, H M, Wei, Z, Iriana, R & Ramsey, S, 2012, Legal Australia-Wide Survey: legal need in Australia, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney
3Speldewinde, C A and Parsons, I, 2015. Medical-legal partnerships: the role of mental health providers and legal authorities in the development of a coordinated approach to supporting mental health clients' legal needs in regional and rural settings. Rural and remote health, 15(4), pp.1-11.