There are a number of good reasons why disadvantaged people in particular turn to non-legal services for assistance including familiarity with the service, convenience and not knowing where else to go. In some cases, disadvantaged people prioritise their non-legal needs over their legal needs and it may be a non-legal worker who tells them the problem they face is a legal one or has a legal implication. However, in some cases, the non-legal worker will have no more knowledge than the client about what to do or where to go for legal help. Having a widely recognised, well resourced single contact point for legal referral and advice may help remedy this situation.
Workers with a more direct support role to disadvantaged clients report assisting clients with legal problems in numerous ways. These include helping clients to identify the problem, referring them to legal services, filling out forms and helping to obtain documentation, accompanying clients to appointments, advocacy and assisting clients through legal processes. However, without appropriate resources, and knowledge of and support from legal services, it can be difficult for non-legal services and workers to provide appropriate assistance to clients with legal problems. Workers may undertake work they are not paid or trained to do, further stretching already insufficient resources. In turn, clients may receive wrong information or advice and inappropriate referrals, preventing them from receiving the appropriate and timely legal assistance that they need.
To increase the access of disadvantaged people to appropriate and timely legal assistance, it would be mutually beneficial for links to be formed between legal and non-legal services and workers. The nature of these links will clearly vary with the capacity and role of the organisations involved. Some non-legal services may only be in a position to provide clients with a phone number for a legal assistance service such as LawAccess NSW, while others may be in a position to build networks with local legal services in order to facilitate better referrals and establish mutual training and advice arrangements. For clients with more complex needs, it may be appropriate for non-legal and legal services to be coordinated to a larger extent, for example through the establishment of service hubs.
Building relationships between the legal and nonlegal sectors, which recognise the key role of nonlegal workers as a pathway to justice, has potential to improve the access to justice for socially and disadvantaged people, particularly those with complex needs, including sometimes overwhelming legal and non-legal problems.