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Access to justice roundtable  ( 2003 )  Cite this report

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Access to Justice in Rural and Remote Areas

Barry Fowler , Manager/Social Worker, Broken Hill Community Inc.

Disempowered People

Thanks very much for inviting me here today. I have just jotted a few points down to try to give you a flavour of the Far West of New South Wales. As a social worker, you are working with disempowered people. That in itself is an important consideration. Whether a person’s got to front the court, Centrelink, a doctor, the police, the Housing Department or a bank manager for a loan, they are disadvantaged from day one. Clearly, there is a power imbalance in the relationship that will never go away no matter how much you try with legislation. People have been to those places so many times and the answer has been no. They do not have the confidence or resources to tackle something like a Court or a Tribunal. We have set up various new legal processes but, still, disempowered people aren’t prepared or are not receiving redress and improving their life chances.

Whether you’re in the inner city or in a small community in Western New South Wales, disempowered people virtually everywhere are faced with that lack of confidence, and that lack of support to take action in those areas. We tell people that there are a range of tribunals that they could access if they have got a problem with a motor vehicle, a trader, a bank or an Ombudsman.

Telephone Access

We tell people that these various bodies (tribunals, ombudsman) can be accessed through a 1800 telephone number. At Broken Hill our phone lines all go via South Australia so that for the first couple of years the 1800 services did not work as you needed a national number and that was more expensive than a state based number. That problem was rectified after we made plenty of noise about inequality of access. A current problem is that disempowered people often have only incoming calls. They cannot access a 1800 telephone number. So people who need to use an 1800 number have to find someone else’s telephone that has full access. So if you receive inward calls only you can’t actually access 1800 numbers in the privacy of your own home. Generally, these telephone calls are sensitive and you don’t want to approach a neighbour to use their telephone. Certainly, the 1800 numbers have been very useful for rural and remote people. Just awareness that there is an 1800 telephone number available is a huge problem. You might be given a leaflet but unless it is relevant for you right now you tend to throw it out. So, doing major mail out campaigns may not be very effective. A fridge magnet with contact details is a safer path. If you can access a telephone, disempowered people have got to have this belief that these people in Sydney can actually make a difference. They seem to be so remote from their community how could they possibly know. I think 1800 numbers are great and are one option to outreach to rural and remote communities.

Visits By Tribunals

This year, a tribunal visited Broken Hill, but no one seemed to know that the body had come to town. I don’t know whether that was a strategy, but to me I thought it was a great opportunity to say ‘listen, here we are, make a song and dance, here’s the tribunal, it’s here visiting the bush’. It was an opportunity to say ‘here is the legal system at work’ and hopefully encourage people to make use of it. People need to be aware of visits as it is a great opportunity to show the flag. Visiting tribunals could highlight that a case is happening—just the fact that cases have actually got up. So, we have a major problem that disempowered people have no belief that their personal issue can be addressed by the courts, new legislation or a tribunal. At the local level, people really need ‘champions’, people who are prepared to say these visiting tribunals are worth accessing, make people aware and encourage people.

Literacy and Numeracy

Literacy and numeracy is a big issue. In Broken Hill, you might just think that literacy and numeracy rates would be better than the surrounding communities with higher Aboriginal populations. Today, Broken Hill has a population of 20,000 with a quality schooling system, but it has higher rates of illiteracy than the national average. In past years, young males were guaranteed a top job as a miner after leaving school. So why did they have to worry about reading and writing? So quite often social workers and the legal fraternity make this assumption, that these people can read. We give them a brochure, we tell them about a tribunal. We have pockets of people that we assume have good literacy and numeracy. So again we need to be aware of local factors when trying to improve access to services. Virtually, we need to design individual plans for rural, remote and metropolitan communities.

Internet Access

Today, there is trend toward forcing people to access information via web pages rather than in person or telephone. You are told to look up a web page and it is amazing that you cannot actually talk to a human being. You ring down and they will say, ‘oh it’s on our web page’. You look on the web page and there’s not an e-mail address or the postal address. It seems to be collusion to stop you accessing real people. For people on station properties or remote villages, it takes 15 minutes to download a website.

It is very, very slow and therefore expensive via STD rates. Web pages have drawbacks, but at least it’s information. We are told that Telecentres (the rural alternative to the capital city cyber café) are going to make a difference. At a Telecentre, where we can access one, there are computers and you can log on with a fast link up. It is planned that Telstra will roll out a satellite service for station properties. But I guess the thing we need to explore is who has a computer. If you do not have a computer, you have to have confidence to go to a Telecentre. If you live in Wilcannia or Ivanhoe where the population might be 100 or 500 people, the ability to remain anonymous is pretty difficult. Logging on can be pretty nerve-racking if you intend to contact ICAC about lodging a complaint about a Councillor, trader or police officer. So just finding information is really difficult in rural and remote Australia.


Confidentiality is a really big issue in rural and remote areas. It does not matter whether the community is 100 or 20,000 people. These communities don’t have a turnover of population. There hasn’t been a mobility of people. My own experience highlights confidentiality. When I moved 27 years ago to Broken Hill, my wife said, ‘well it is my home town and there are lots of relatives here and they all know everyone’s business’. It was amazing that on my first day working for Social Security I did some visits to clients. When I came home at lunch time and she said to me: ‘well I told you they would know what you were doing - I can tell you that an aunty said ‘does your husband drive a Commonwealth car?’ This morning at 11am you were visiting someone on the corner of Beryl Street’. Yes, aunty was spot on. Sometimes, you hoped people might get confused with Telecom cars, but most realised the difference. So, people have never moved, never shifted house and therefore know strangers and can pick out the government people. The result is that when you go to Court, if you go to a government department office or someone calls to your home, everyone makes assumptions about what you are there for.

Media Aggregration

As a result of media concentration, the opportunity for debate of social issues or reporting legal cases has been reduced considerably. Also, in rural and remote areas, people can obtain their news and information from other states. Menindee and Wilcannia has more television and radio than Broken Hill with 20,000 people. It comes from Imparja television based in Alice Springs. Also, QTV has information coming out of Mt Isa, Townsville or Brisbane and late at night it’s coming out of Sydney. At 3 am in the morning and you actually see ads for, a car yard on Parramatta Road. So, you are hearing of legal cases, new legislation and tribunal hearings that are happening in South Australia, Northern Territory or Queensland. So there is a lot of confusion that comes from the fact of people living close to the borders due to television and radio coverage. So, one third of the NSW is receiving mixed messages and not hearing of social issue debates. In preparing any media campaign to outreach a new initiative, we need to consider this aspect.Cultural Values

The other thing I think is that country cultural values are different. People tend to be very, very conservative. My guess is that it reinforces the view that you can’t change things. If you have got plenty of money though you can. Recently, there was the case of a grazier whose property was flooded. It was the worst floods in history, something like $500,000 in damage. The insurance company decided not to pay and that case went right through to the Supreme Court. Again, what happened was this was a story where someone took on big business and government but straight away the locals said ‘well it is okay if you are a grazier and you have got money’. And that’s the sort of stuff that just reinforced the fact that, if we take someone on, we are not going to win. That we cannot change things.

Recruiting Personnel

In rural and remote areas, it difficult to recruit professionals, whether it is solicitors, social workers, teachers, nurses or doctors. These positions can support disempowered people in their working the legal system. Generally, a lot of positions are base grade positions. Hence, they are graduates who occupy those positions for a very short period. Like one of the domestic violence workers’ positions was filled for two days and the person left because it was just too hard. There was basically no support. So, we often set up a lot of support worker or outreach positions, in rural and remote areas. But they will continue to fail to support disempowered people because they are graded very low, filled by inexperienced professionals and they have no support systems. These positions support people to access the legal system or follow up issues of housing, transport or whatever. There are some positive initiatives that need to be extended to other professions. In the health system there is a lot happening to try and get doctors and nursing staff to get more familiar with the country as part of graduate training. Their graduate program has visiting programmes and financial incentives to relocate.

I guess that it could be the approach of the legal fraternity or people who are working in tribunals, the fact that there is an opportunity for them, as part of their training, to actually come out and actually spend some time there.


Access to justice roundtable: proceedings of a workshop, July 2002, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney, 2003