As with the other regions surveyed in this study, Walgett LGA is an area where people experienced a reasonably high incidence of legal events over a one-year period. Approximately 69 per cent of Walgett participants reported experiencing one or more legal events in the previous 12 months, with almost 32 per cent reported experiencing three or more legal events. The incidence of legal events for Walgett LGA was statistically comparable to that reported for the other regions.
The legal events experienced among the Walgett sub-sample related to a broad range of civil, criminal and family law issues. As with the overall sample, of the legal events reported by Walgett participants, the majority fell under the broad heading of civil law, although this was somewhat a function of the structure of the questionnaire. Walgett participants reported civil and family matters at similar rates to the overall sample, although credit/debt issues were more prevalent among this sub-sample than the overall group. One factor that may explain this finding is that Indigenous people were more likely to report credit/debt issues in general in this study (Coumarelos et al, 2006). Therefore, as the Walgett sub-sample had 13.2% of respondents who identified as Indigenous (compared with between 0.3% and 3.6% for the other regions), this may have increased the rate of credit/debt issues reported. Criminal matters were also reported at a significantly higher rate than the overall sample.
When respondents took some action about their legal problems, help from an adviser was sought for approximately 45 per cent of the legal events reported, generally from only one source. However, of the six LGAs surveyed, Walgett LGA had the lowest proportion of participants reporting they sought help with their legal problem. Among the Walgett respondents who took no action for their legal problems, the most important reason provided was the respondent felt the issue was not serious (or did not know how serious the event was). A previous study on legal service provision in rural communities indicated that lack of privacy and confidentiality, embarrassment/fear of public scrutiny and service providers’ conflict of interest issue may deter people living in small communities such as Walgett from obtaining legal help (Gidding, Hook and Nielsen 2001). Similar to other regions, Walgett participants most often source their help through their own personal knowledge and personal networks. However, when compared with all participants, they were more likely to use an adviser from a service they had used before, which may partly be the result of a limited choice of advisers in the local area. In the majority of cases, the participants tended to use non-legal advisers such as friends, relatives or non-legal professionals compared with legal advisers. Thus, unsurprisingly, for a large proportion it was non-legal advice that was received.
In general, Walgett participants experienced few difficulties with getting assistance with their legal problems. Although in the minority, a number of Walgett residents participating in the current survey reported experiencing some delay in getting a response back from an adviser and also reported the lack of local services. This may explain why the majority of Walgett participants had to travel much further for their legal assistance — in one-third of legal events they reported travelling over 20 kilometres for assistance, considerably further than survey participants from other regions. Despite this, almost 70 per cent of Walgett participants were satisfied with the help they received. However, levels of satisfaction for non-legal advisers were reported the lowest among the six regions surveyed.
The above findings and those from the overall report (Coumarelos et al. 2006) suggest a range of strategies may be required to promote justice through legal services in remote areas. The substantial rates of people doing nothing for their legal problems, because of a view that seeking help would make no difference or make things worse, show the importance of enhancing the general knowledge about how legal processes could assist them to resolve issues. This could be achieved through proactive information and education, to increase public awareness about their legal needs and the available pathways for legal resolution. The observation that people go to non-legal advisers when they have legal problems suggests there may be benefit in raising the general level of legal literacy among the community at large, to enable the use of non-legal professionals as effective gateways into available legal services (Coumarelos et al. 2006).
Finally, delay in getting a response back from an adviser and the lack of local services may indicate the need to improve the accessibility of legal services through more resources, extended availability of services and additional legal services for special groups including Indigenous people. For Indigenous participants, their language and cultural barriers
and lack of cultural awareness among service providers could be reasons for not seeking help from mainstream legal services (Australian Parliament House 2004). Some new initiatives targeting these needs have been implemented, such as the establishment of centres to provide culturally sensitive and accessible legal services to Indigenous families (Ralph 2006) and special assistance for Indigenous women in family law matters (Song 2006).
Communication and information technologies (hotlines, video conferencing facilities and internet websites) may also reduce the barriers of distance to improve access to legal services in remote areas. However, limited access to telephone/computer/internet, poor English language skills and poor literacy rates among people living in remote areas are barriers that must be considered to ensure that legal services can react quickly and effectively to resolve legal problems in remote areas (Fowler, 2003).