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Effective legal referral

This document has been prepared by members of the Legal Referral Forum.
What is the legal referral system?
Customers with legal problems will approach a variety of agencies, both legal and non-legal, to seek assistance. Agencies may include community legal centres, courts, Legal Aid, libraries, private solicitors and barristers, the Law Society of NSW, dispute resolution agencies, government departments, community agencies, health professionals and private organisations. The legal referral system potentially includes any of these agencies that need to refer their client to another agency for additional assistance.

What is effective legal referral?

In the context of community work referral is the handing over or passing on of a client to another organisation. Effective legal referral practice has the following components:
  • It assists the customer to reach a suitable service provider with the least number of referrals
  • It assists the customer to take appropriate action by providing tools
  • It carries out the referral in a way that is appropriate to customer needs.

Effective legal referral depends upon having an effective legal referral system, effective agencies within the system, staff who have the necessary skills, knowledge and attitudes to carry out the referral (referral competencies) and appropriate tools to assist staff.

What makes an effective legal referral system?

An effective legal referral system is one which:

Meets the needs of clients:
  • helps people to recognise when they have a legal problem
  • assists the customer to take appropriate action
  • empowers and informs the customer
  • ensures that the customer is referred to a suitable service provider with the least number of referrals
  • has strategies for when agencies have reached capacity
  • is flexible and can respond to changing circumstances
  • advocates for the customer when necessary and appropriate
  • is accessible to all clients e.g. clients with limited English, with disabilities, who don't use the phone
  • treats customers in a culturally appropriate way
  • has multiple entry points which provide consistent information e.g. internet, agencies, libraries, publications, face to face, phone, email.

Has skilled staff and is adequately resourced:
  • has staff who have appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes
  • provides appropriate training for staff
  • provides staff time to participate in networks
  • does not put unrealistic demands on staff
  • acknowledges the different levels of referral both within and between agencies
  • has appropriate tools to support services and staff e.g. training packages, procedures, competencies, databases, up to date and comprehensive information.

Works together
  • has a shared aim or mission
  • has clearly defined roles and responsibilities for different types of agencies in the system e.g. courts, community legal centres
  • shares a common language
  • ensures that each agency knows what others do
  • works across all relevant sectors
  • builds relationships between service providers through strategies such as referral protocols
  • shares expertise among service providers i.e. able to access an expert with specific legal expertise
  • has shared tools e.g. databases.

Knows about current service delivery
  • feeds information about gaps in service provision into policy
  • gathers and shares information and research into client needs and pathways to assist with planning and evaluation
  • monitors how well it is doing and acknowledges and learns from incorrect referrals.

Barriers to an effective referral system
  • lacks availability of services
  • lacks understanding of the legal system
  • lacks coordination or shared information
  • lacks adequate maintenance of the system
  • lacks ability to deal with the various needs of clients enabling access to services e.g. clients with limited English, clients with low level literacy
  • agencies which are inward looking
  • agencies which are under resourced.

What makes an effective legal referral agency?
For the legal referral system to be effective as a whole, each agency needs to be internally effective. Agencies have responsibility for the operation of their service in order that legal referral staff are able to function effectively and competently. An effective agency within the legal referral system...
  • provides access to training and professional development for all staff
  • disseminates information to ensure staff are informed
  • provides access to appropriate tools and resources
  • provides supervision and support for staff
  • maintains and implements policies and procedures for the operation of the service
  • clearly defines roles within the agency including the responsibilities and accountabilities of each role
  • implements evaluation and feedback mechanisms to ensure continual improvement of service.