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On the edge of justice: the legal needs of people with a mental illness  ( 2006 )  Cite this report

Ch 4. Barriers to accessing legal assistance

Individual barriers to accessing legal assistance



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Communication problems


    I have worked in the community sector for 10 years now … you adapt your communication skills, and your approach to things, and you make sure you explain things in a certain way from that professional point of view.36

Consultations indicated that the symptoms of mental illness can make it difficult for a person to communicate easily with others and that it was difficult in some circumstances for lawyers to understand what their client’s problem was and what their instructions were.37 Communication problems can act as a barrier to accessing legal assistance, as a solicitor may not be able to gather the right information from a client and therefore may not be able to assist them effectively.

    Accessing the service can be a problem simply because with some mental illness conditions, there can be a real problem with communication.38

    The mental illness affects their expression a bit, and they find it hard to articulate their problems.39

    It’s impossible to get verbal instructions: the words just don’t make sense. To try and understand what they are saying, there are key words, but I have no idea what [they are] saying. So there is probably a huge group of people that are totally lost, totally unable to access the system.40

    Getting instructions, to know what to do in a matter, can be awfully difficult.41

The difficulties people can have communicating with legal service providers were also reported by the Disability Council in A Question of Justice:

    Difficulties in communication between client and legal representative were commonly reported. Lawyers expressed that they were often uncertain about the instructions they received, particularly from people with a psychiatric disability.42

A senior solicitor from the Mental Health Advocacy Service (MHAS) argued that it can be difficult for some clients with a mental illness to communicate the most (legally) relevant details about their situation:

    I think mental illness can interfere with the way that people remember and relay that sort of [detailed] information.43

People with a mental illness may also have difficulties comprehending information relayed to them, particularly if it is complex. A mental health caseworker and a CLC worker reported that clients with a mental illness can have problems absorbing and understanding legal advice given to them.

    If they are unable to even cook their own breakfast, how are they interpreting the legal advice that’s being given to them?44

One participant argued that communication problems can be exacerbated by the effects of medication:

    There are side-effects when, my brain is sort of, I am thinking straight, but I am not clear-headed, I am medicated. So it might take me a bit longer to achieve something.45

In consultation for this study, a senior solicitor from the MHAS also argued that communication problems are exacerbated for people from NESBs with a mental illness, because they have to rely on the use of interpreters:

    If somebody turns up to the Legal Aid Commission office and can’t speak a word of English, we will try and arrange an appointment with an interpreter. All of that stuff is more difficult to a person who is mentally ill. They need to be coherent enough to know what their problem is really, to know what they are after.46

In A Question of Justice, the Disability Council argued that using interpreters may be harder for people with a mental illness whose first language is not English, particularly when interpreters are not trained to work with people who have disabilities.47

Communication over the telephone

Many legal services provide legal advice and information over the phone—for example, some CLCs, particularly those based in capital cities, will have a telephone advice service at particular times of the day. LawAccess is a free telephone advice service that provides people with legal information and advice on where to seek additional legal assistance.48 Telephone advice lines are invaluable ways of providing advice to people who have difficulty accessing legal assistance face-to-face, such as people living in rural and regional areas and people with very specific mental illnesses, such as agoraphobia and serious depression.49 However, several service providers interviewed for this study commented that people with a mental illness often have difficulties communicating with lawyers over the phone, and prefer face-to-face communication.50 For example:


    It is hard for people with a mental illness to ring the advice line, so they tend to do better with face-to-face advice. They just find it very difficult to find us and ring up.51

    The illness itself can be a problem, and the person on the other end [of the phone], if they are not aware of the situation, can find the communication difficult, and so it will be less beneficial than otherwise.52

    Speaking to a legal rep on the telephone could be quite daunting.53

Commenting on the lack of support services available in rural and regional areas, a solicitor from a regional CLC made the following remarks:

    … there are not the support services that can assist them to make that phone call, or interpret the information, or provide that sort of assistance. In my experience, people feel much more comfortable in accessing legal advice or information by sitting down and talking to someone, and being in the same room.54

A caseworker reported that a reliance on the telephone can act as a barrier for people with a mental illness who are from a culturally and linguistically diverse background and, in particular, those who are from a small community and who rely on the Translating and Interpreting Service.55 She was of the opinion that fear of stigma within their own community may make it difficult for some people to disclose their illness to a legal service provider through a telephone interpreter:

    … if you are someone from a Cambodian background, and you have a big debt, you don’t live in the metropolitan area, you can’t come in, and your English is poor, all you can do is disclose your problem to the telephone interpreter service, [and there are] not all that many Khmer interpreters working for the service. [There are] not only fears related to the mental illness, but also fears of being identified by the community. [This is] just an additional problem for people forced to rely on telephone interpreters.56


Consultation with pro bono solicitor, Sydney, September 2004.
Consultations with solicitor in charge, MHAS, Legal Aid, December 2004, executive officer, Human Services CEOs Forum, March 2005, CLC workers, WLS, October 2004, pro bono solicitor, Sydney, September 2004, family law solicitor, October 2004, barrister, Sydney, January 2005, caseworker, Blue Mountains, July 2004. See also Cullen, Out of the Picture, paras.1.10, 4.10 and 6.22.
Consultation with family law solicitor, October 2004.
Consultation with solicitor, CCLC, August 2004.
Consultation with pro bono solicitor, Sydney, September 2004.
Consultation with family law solicitor, October 2004.
Disability Council, A Question of Justice, p. 86.
Consultation with solicitor in charge, MHAS, Legal Aid, December 2004.
Consultation with caseworker, South Coast, NSW, November 2004. Also consultation with CLC workers, KLC, August 2004.
Interview no. 11.
Consultation with solicitor in charge, MHAS, Legal Aid, December 2004.
Disability Council, A Question of Justice, p. 83.
LawAccess Online, <http://info.lawaccess.nsw.gov.au/lawaccess/lawaccess.nsf/pages/about_us> (accessed September 2005).
Roundtable consultation, 16 June 2004
Consultations with solicitor, CCLC, August 2004, CLC worker, Western NSW, September 2004, family law solicitor, October 2004, caseworker, South Coast, NSW, November 2004, CLC workers, KLC, August 2004, case manager, WRC, Sydney, November 2004. See also Combined CLCs Group (NSW) Inc (CCLC NSW), Submission to the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health, Sydney, 2005, p. 7, <http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/mentalhealth_ctte/submissions/sublist.htm> (accessed October 2005).
Consultation with solicitor, CCLC, August 2004.
Consultation with family law solicitor, October 2004.
Consultation with caseworker, South Coast, NSW, November 2004.
Consultation with CLC worker, Western NSW, September 2004.
The Australian government, through the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, provides the Translating and Interpreting Service for people who do not speak English and for English speakers needing to communicate with them. The service is available to any person or organisation in Australia requiring interpreting services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and is accessible from anywhere in Australia.
Consultation with case manager, WRC, Sydney, November 2004.

36  Consultation with pro bono solicitor, Sydney, September 2004.
37  Consultations with solicitor in charge, MHAS, Legal Aid, December 2004, executive officer, Human Services CEOs Forum, March 2005, CLC workers, WLS, October 2004, pro bono solicitor, Sydney, September 2004, family law solicitor, October 2004, barrister, Sydney, January 2005, caseworker, Blue Mountains, July 2004. See also Cullen, Out of the Picture, paras.1.10, 4.10 and 6.22.
38  Consultation with family law solicitor, October 2004.
39  Consultation with solicitor, CCLC, August 2004.
40  Consultation with pro bono solicitor, Sydney, September 2004.
41  Consultation with family law solicitor, October 2004.
42  Disability Council, A Question of Justice, p. 86.
43  Consultation with solicitor in charge, MHAS, Legal Aid, December 2004.
44  Consultation with caseworker, South Coast, NSW, November 2004. Also consultation with CLC workers, KLC, August 2004.
45  Interview no. 11.
46  Consultation with solicitor in charge, MHAS, Legal Aid, December 2004.
47  Disability Council, A Question of Justice, p. 83.
48  LawAccess Online, <http://info.lawaccess.nsw.gov.au/lawaccess/lawaccess.nsf/pages/about_us> (accessed September 2005).
49  Roundtable consultation, 16 June 2004
50  Consultations with solicitor, CCLC, August 2004, CLC worker, Western NSW, September 2004, family law solicitor, October 2004, caseworker, South Coast, NSW, November 2004, CLC workers, KLC, August 2004, case manager, WRC, Sydney, November 2004. See also Combined CLCs Group (NSW) Inc (CCLC NSW), Submission to the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health, Sydney, 2005, p. 7, <http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/mentalhealth_ctte/submissions/sublist.htm> (accessed October 2005).
51  Consultation with solicitor, CCLC, August 2004.
52  Consultation with family law solicitor, October 2004.
53  Consultation with caseworker, South Coast, NSW, November 2004.
54  Consultation with CLC worker, Western NSW, September 2004.
55  The Australian government, through the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, provides the Translating and Interpreting Service for people who do not speak English and for English speakers needing to communicate with them. The service is available to any person or organisation in Australia requiring interpreting services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and is accessible from anywhere in Australia.
56  Consultation with case manager, WRC, Sydney, November 2004.


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Karras, M, McCarron, E, Gray, A & Ardasinski, S 2006, On the edge of justice: the legal needs of people with a mental illness in NSW, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney