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Research Report: Outreach legal services and complex needs: what works? Justice issues paper 12
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Outreach legal services and complex needs: what works? Justice issues paper 12  ( 2009 )  Cite this report

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'Outreach' is a strategy commonly used as a way to reach and provide legal services to very disadvantaged people isolated from legal help. To inform evidence-based practice, we have systematically reviewed the best available research evidence on outreach legal services to disadvantaged people with complex needs. We have examined whether outreach legal services can reach and assist disadvantaged people with complex needs and the features of those services which contribute to their effectiveness and sustainability.

The 'best available research evidence' on outreach legal services that we have located and reviewed in this report is a set of eleven evaluation reports on outreach services in Australia and the United Kingdom. While they do vary considerably in scale, these studies generally evaluate outreach legal services conducted over several sites. Four of the UK studies review a large scale nationwide program of outreach advice services to disadvantaged people.

The evidence we have identified in this review tells us that properly resourced, appropriately placed outreach legal services, which have solid links to their client group, with skilled advisers and strong referral networks can:

  • reach disadvantaged clients with complex legal needs and who otherwise would not have received legal assistance
  • assist these clients to address their legal issues, improve their circumstances and may increase their willingness to seek assistance in future
  • reduce the stress and anxiety associated with having outstanding legal issues, such as debt related issues
  • reduce the burden on host agencies by providing them and their clients with access to specialist support/expertise.

There is also some evidence that outreach debt advice in particular, may have direct financial benefits for clients (e.g. in terms of reduced debts, increased income and a 'clean slate'). Further, timely advice can prevent issues from (further) escalating in seriousness because they remain unaddressed.

While the exact format of any outreach service will differ depending upon the target group, the nature of the legal issues and the specific context of the program, there were a number of observations and findings made across the studies about the features of outreach services which contribute to success. These findings may assist services in the design, implementation and ongoing delivery of sustainable and effective outreach legal services to these target groups. In summary, our analysis suggests that best practice outreach legal services to disadvantaged people with complex needs have the following characteristics.

Planning and collaboration

Services are planned and are established in consultation with other legal and non-legal services which assist the target group, and/or the target group themselves. This is important to ensure the service fills a gap in services and to develop ongoing referral pathways in and out of the outreach services. The importance of maintaining ongoing formal and informal communication with any host agency and other networks was also stressed.

Linking with clients

To reach clients with complex needs, services are best located in places that are frequented and trusted by the target groups and which have a flow of clients through that service. Host locations need a private space in which the outreach service can be provided. However, appropriate location is not necessarily enough to reach clients. The reach of the service is also increased by:

  • effective referral systems with agencies (including the host agency) and individuals who are known to and trusted by the target group
  • services being appropriately marketed to the target group and the front line workers and community members supporting them.

Appropriate service provision

To ensure that the legal assistance provided is appropriate for the client group, services are ideally flexible in their service provision. Services need the capacity to act quickly if necessary and to spend time with clients who require more intensive support. Further, services need strategies to stay in touch with transient clients. High quality approachable services, consistency of service and confidentiality were also identified as key characteristics of effective legal outreach to 'hard-to-reach' clients.

Staffing and resourcing

A number of studies in our review noted that it can take more time, more resources and more skills to effectively reach and assist these clients — particularly when the service aims to assist clients with a range of their legal problems. However, there is also some evidence that much of the additional cost of outreach relates to the overhead or 'fixed' costs of outreach, than the length of the advice sessions themselves. Nevertheless, it is these additional fixed costs — for planning and set up, administration and coordination of the service, ongoing collaboration with host agencies and other services, and the ongoing training and supervision of legal advisers — which are needed to make outreach services work effectively. Services also appear to work more effectively with access to appropriate technology, such as access to telephones, internet and electronic filing systems.

Outreach lawyers ideally have expertise in the relevant areas of law as well as skills in working with clients with complex needs. Clients with complex needs appreciate lawyers who are approachable, respectful, skilled at explaining legal issues in plain language, and able to appropriately refer clients for additional assistance where necessary. The studies reviewed recognised the difficulty in finding staff with all the requisite skills.

Monitoring and review

In terms of monitoring and review, services and their funding bodies need to have realistic targets and expected outcomes. Funders need to have realistic expectations of the time and resources it may take to reach and assist very marginalised clients with complex needs.


Forell, S & Gray, A 2009, Outreach legal services to people with complex needs: what works? Justice issues paper 12, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney