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Access to justice roundtable  ( 2003 )  Cite this report

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Working Group 1 - Access to Legal Information

The Distinction Between Legal Information and Legal Advice

Importance for the Community

The first point participants made was that the distinction between legal information and legal advice means absolutely nothing to ‘the punters out there’. The distinction is confusing to ‘somebody who doesn’t really know if they need information or advice, or indeed what the difference is, and quite frankly doesn’t care anyway’.

Participants generally agreed that trying to draw the information/advice distinction creates confusion, and that if we are going to draw a distinction at all we need to think of different words. For example, ‘you could say that information is about how the system works, but if you have a real problem and real issues and real questions to ask about your particular situation and what you need to do, then you need advice.’

However, participants also noted that the distinction between information and advice can be about context. For example:

    It is well known that public libraries provide information. The public therefore don’t come expecting advice—they come to find information.

Other organisations provide a mix of information, advice, representation and advocacy, making drawing the line at information more difficult. There are often expectations that an NGO will provide assistance. Centrelink is a different context again.

Importance for Intermediaries

By contrast, participants thought that the distinction between legal information and legal advice can be an important one for intermediaries for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they saw the issue of who is entitled to give legal advice as important. One participant raised the issue that the Legal Practitioners Act defines who can give legal advice. Getting indemnity insurance also impacts on who can give legal advice. Many insurance policies are very strict about this.

One way a participant suggested that a useful distinction could be drawn in a community service delivery context was between ‘practical’ and ‘legal’ advice. For example:

    A lot of practical stuff like ‘what can I expect when I go to court’ is not necessarily legal advice. A youth worker who’s probably been to court a million times can probably give the young person an idea of what the court looks like, what to expect, how to go and see legal aid.

    Where a person has unpaid train fines and a letter from the State Debt Recovery Office, it is not considered legal advice for a youth worker to give advice about how to negotiate with the State Debt Recovery Office about repayment. However, discussions about how to have debts written off, or what a person’s rights are, could be seen to cross into legal advice.

One participant said that predicting an outcome was also moving into the area of legal advice.

    For example, a youth worker saying to a young person who has been charged with shop lifting as a first offence who is terrified of going to court because they think they are going to get locked up saying, ‘there’s no way you’ll get locked up” was seen as providing legal advice.

Nevertheless, participants saw a blur between information and advice for youth workers in practice. Even though youth workers are not supposed to give advice, because their focus is on responding to needs, they may provide advice if necessary. Participants also noted a lack of codes, ethics etc as youth workers are very isolated.

Some community workers are fearful of being sued if ‘advice’ is given. However, participants also noted that many community workers do not realise how infrequently people actually get sued in this area. Also the law on negligent advice is ‘really slippery’—particularly in relation to the duty of care.

Particular groups of people

People of Non English Speaking Background

Participants raised problems with accessing translation/interpreter services for NESB women. They reported that the Quarter Way to Equal report set up processes for women to have better access to interpreter services but that many of these had not been acted upon.

Participants identified children of parents who do not speak English as an important group as they are often the interpreters for their parents. They may need specially developed information.

Participants saw it as important to have people from a similar cultural background deliver information, for example bilingual health workers. Religious leaders, community settlement workers, community leaders and the ethnic media were also mentioned as good people to disseminate information.

Migrant Resource Centres were noted as an important way to access non-English speaking communities. However participants said that these were overstretched because of lack of resources.

Young people

Participants raised the issue of what to do with young people with a mix of high level needs and are therefore in crises situations, for example, ‘can’t read; have left school in Year 6; don’t seek legal help till the last minute; have a $6000 debt and are at crisis point’.

Sources of legal information


Participants noted a need for a solid information infrastructure that provided a reliable, neutral source of legal information. The Legal Information Access Centre (LIAC) network provides this resource, and the role of librarians is to help guide people through all the legal information that is available.

Some participants pointed out that libraries are of limited use for people with poor literacy—‘the law is in words and libraries are full of words’.

Getting to libraries was seen as difficult in some areas and use of libraries is variable: ‘in some country areas indigenous people use the libraries and in some areas they don’t.’

Other participants argued that libraries are not necessarily for the middle classes—they reflect their own communities. Libraries also have lots of repeat customers, and therefore have the opportunity to build an ongoing relationship with users.

For those with literacy problems, some participants thought that the best approach was to target workers. It was pointed out that LIAC staff see part of their role as providing community workers with authoritative up-to-date legal information.

Legal web sites

There was a strong feeling among participants that the usefulness of web sites depends on how well designed they are and how much they meet user needs—for this reason user needs analysis needs to be done. Some noted that it also depended on what the expectations are about what they are going to provide. If they are properly developed they can be very useful:

    A good web site that’s been designed based on an analysis of user needs is good. But the one that’s just whacked up because somebody thinks that’s what the users want is the one that doesn’t work.

Participants argued that a lot of testing needed to be done with the whole range of potential users about what was going to work:

    It’s in the development and a lot of them are done too quickly and are too much in the mindset of getting it done at a low cost. Quite often the person who is designing the web site has never been in the shoes of any of the range of people who might want to use it.

Participants reported that NSW government web sites are very piecemeal. They noted a need for quality control and consistency and thought that the information on some legal sites was substandard:

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘Let’s think of as many links as possible, let’s put up as much information as possible’ but then you have links to sites that are less reliable and less up to date and less useful and that dilutes the quality of the information. was given as a good example of a youth user centred site:

    They have structured it so that anyone can have a say. Interactivity is important. Sites often put barriers in place so that people can’t react with them whereas Vibewire tries to make people react and get involved with the web site and write reviews. A young person might post a review and another young person might comment on it.

Legal Education: Training Intermediaries

Participants saw training as essential for non-lawyers dealing with clients who have legal problems. For example:

  • Public librarians need training before they are comfortable with providing legal information
  • Shopfront trains and provides resources to youth workers. They’ve found this to be more effective than training young people directly
  • People from non-English speaking backgrounds often find it easier to receive information from a person who is of a similar cultural background. This makes training ethnic community workers important.

Participants reported a large worker turnover in the community sector, making it difficult to keep all community workers up to date. They commented that most community organisations also do not have a training budget to pay for courses, and their staff are already over-stretched working excess hours.

It was agreed that lawyers do not necessarily make the best trainers; however, legal workshops run by professional educators may also not work because educators do not have the practical legal experience and knowledge to answer participants’ questions about how the theory works in the ‘real world’. Participants thought that a better model might be for collaboration between a professional trainer and a lawyer to ensure that the practical content is useful while the educative model is also sound.

Participants saw a need for organisations providing intermediary training to have an ongoing relationship with community workers. Working with intermediaries over a period of time was seen as helping to build up their confidence and knowledge.

The training provided by the Macquarie Legal Centre was praised because:

  • it is free
  • it is held out of normal office hours
  • it is backed up with printed material. This gives the intermediary something to refer back to.

Community education: training the community

Participants agreed that, rather than merely providing information, skills based training is important. For example, ‘young people need training in skills to enable them to be heard, such as advocacy, negotiation and lobbying’.
The other key point was that one size does not fit all in community education. Participants saw a need to identify and target particular communities and adapt education appropriately. For example, tenancy education and advice may be different for non-English speaking groups than for others.

It was noted that CLC’s have been forced to reduce their educative role because they do not have enough resources and there is such a high demand for casework.

Participants said that general community education for adults is not usually successful unless it is based around a current and specific need:

    People need information when they have a problem, and they don’t want to know about the law until it’s a problem.

They argued that training needs to be more holistic and mesh a social/legal rights approach, for example crime prevention and law and order on housing estates. Training often only deals with particular aspects such as law and order issues.

The school system was seen as crucial in bringing about more understanding of how the legal system works and what questions to ask, yet school often does not provide basic information about legal structures, for example, ‘what is third party insurance’.

Participants thought that the peer education model was one possible way to increase understanding of the law and legal system. The NSW Attorney General’s Department Violence Against Women Unit, for example, is currently running a peer education project with Tamil and Hindi Women’s Groups. The aim of the project is to train groups of young women to support other women in the areas of positive and healthy relationships and self-esteem and self-image. There will also be some legal issues covered such as where to find services. They are running focus groups with young women on what should go into a training package.

There was some discussion on getting a stream of legal education through the schools, for example civics courses to promote discussion of the legal system.

Participants also mentioned that there is also a lot of peer mentoring carried out with young people in areas such as safe sex, accommodation, lobbying and advocacy. Reviews have been done of peer mentoring and how well it works. One issue raised was that mentors need to be supported and possibly paid.

There was discussion of what works in the area of public education including the use of social marketing. A participant reported that the NSW Attorney General’s Department is currently running a domestic violence project using these techniques, called It’s against all the rules. They are using local sports people, schools, postcards and stickers and the backs of buses to promote the message. Separate regional specific promotions have also been carried out including a promotion working with the aboriginal community in Western Sydney called Let’s keep our mob on track.


Participants asked whether community workers know who to refer people to. They generally felt that this was not the case. For example, they commented that training for youth workers showed that they did not know what Legal Aid did. Participants thought that community settlement workers need more training on what legal services exist:

    If you know someone you have a foot in the door for clients eg secret number for a centre. Networking is also important. Workers tend to refer to people they know. They need to know who they are referring to, especially when referring young people. They need to be able to trust the organisation they are referring to. This is also important when referring to solicitors.

Participants felt that ideally it is best to contact the referral agency and find out if they are able to help a client.

    Everybody seems to be referring rather than providing services as agencies tighten up on what they will do. This creates referral merry-go-round. One strategy may be to say ‘we don’t know of any other place where you will get free assistance’.

Some participants saw a need for more of an interagency approach to referrals, and more awareness of what other agencies are there. However, others commented that this has been tried many times in the past and has not worked. When asked why not, they replied that lack of resourcing and current tendering models militated against agencies working together. For example, funding based on units of service delivery to individuals have removed community development and its interlinking component of funding.

Some said that people prefer to go to a particular service such as an indigenous service, but may not want to in some circumstances, and that therefore there needs to be referral choice.

A participant reported that LawAccess has implemented a system of referral agreements. These involve gathering relevant information about organisations and also inviting organisations to contact LawAccess if they do not make an appropriate referral they so that they can follow up why it happened and put remedies in place to address this.

The possibility was raised that the Law and Justice Foundation could facilitate an interagency approach to referral.


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