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Research Report: Gateways to the law
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Gateways to the law, an exploratory study of how non-profit agencies assist clients with legal problems    Cite this report

, 2001 , 166 p.
Gateways to the Law is an in-depth exploration of how a range of non-profit agencies in New South Wales go about assisting clients with legal problems, and what issues they faced.

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Summary of key issues

This report presents the findings of an exploratory study into how a range of legal and non-legal agencies in the non-profit sector delivered free assistance to clients with legal problems. We have identified a range of issues and strategies that we hope will stimulate action, discussion and further research. Strategies include the development of clear role definitions and common understanding of service types, the flexible delivery of services, the appropriate use of technology, the provision of adequate training and support, and the development of effective relationships between agencies assisting clients with legal problems. These are discussed in more detail in chapter 8.

The following key issues emerged from the exploratory study:

Attributes of the sector

  1. Limited resources restricted the services agencies were able to provide. Participants often felt unable to meet clients’ needs, especially the need for representation. Agencies used a range of strategies in an attempt to strike a balance between client needs and the effective use of their limited resources, including imposing eligibility criteria, delivering initial services by phone followed up by face-to-face contact, use of volunteers and provision of community legal education.
  2. We identified a lack of clear role definitions among some of the agencies in the study, leading to a lack of knowledge and confusion about what services different agencies provided.
  3. There was considerable confusion surrounding the terms ‘legal information’ and ‘legal advice’. This issue was linked to the type of service non-legally trained staff were able to offer clients.
  4. Many of the participants expressed a desire to increase client understanding of the law and legal process. They did this by explaining the law and legal processes in plain language and by providing clients with written information about the law.
Client characteristics
  1. Participants identified the following characteristics of clients with legal problems:
    • legal problems tended to cluster, and emotional, social and legal issues were often intertwined
    • people had a fear of the legal system
    • people preferred to go to local services unless there were issues of confidentiality
    • face-to-face services were seen as important in enabling service providers to accurately assess the needs and capabilities of clients. They were seen as particularly important for clients in need of physical or emotional support, or assistance with legal procedure
    • individuals varied in their ability to manage their problem with factors such as literacy, economic status, emotional state, language, disability and cultural issues affecting their ability to deal with their problem
    • people often only sought help when a situation had got out of control.
  2. Flexibility was viewed as a vital strategy in meeting the varying needs of clients. Participants varied their practice to meet the needs of individual clients in a range of ways including:
    • the amount of time spent with clients
    • the level of assistance provided
    • the level and type of written or oral information provided
    • the method and place of referral, and the level of ongoing assistance provided
    • the amount of physical and emotional support provided.
  3. Written information was seen as useful for a variety of reasons, including:
    • assisting progress towards resolution
    • clarifying issues
    • gaining control
    • assisting with planning.
  4. Characteristics such as literacy and educational levels influenced the provision of written information to clients. Participants emphasised the need for information to be written in plain language.
Worker knowledge
  1. Training in particular areas of the law increased the level of assistance provided by non-legally trained participants to clients with legal problems. Participants who had received no training were often reluctant to provide oral or written information about substantive law, but appeared to be comfortable assisting clients with legal procedure, such as writing letters and filling out forms.
  2. Access to legal expertise appeared to increase the ability of non-legally trained participants to assist clients with legal problems. This process was formalised in areas such as tenancy and financial counselling through the provision of specialist solicitors to provide advice to non-legally trained workers. Placements in legal agencies were viewed as a useful method for increasing knowledge of legal services and issues.
  3. Participants identified a particular need for training in family law and how courts operate. Some participants had difficulty keeping up-to-date with changes to the law and legal system due to a lack of access to appropriate information. Rural and regional agencies had difficulty accessing appropriate training.
  4. While there was support for the use of written legal information to assist clients, many participants had difficulty accessing appropriate material.
  5. Many participants did not use the Internet as an information source due to lack of access to the Internet, limited research skills, lack of knowledge of what was available and a distrust of Internet resources. Higher levels of use appeared to be linked to access, training and being encouraged to use the Internet.
  1. Participation in networks assisted participants to deliver improved services to clients, particularly in rural areas. Specific benefits included:
    • clarification of role
    • more appropriate referral
    • sharing resources
    • increased access to the expertise of other workers.
  2. While there were a number of examples of strong networks, access to and participation in networks varied. There appeared to be a lack of cross-sectoral networks between agencies assisting clients with legal problems.
  3. The following factors appeared to assist with the development of networks:
    • commitment and resourcing for networks at both individual and central agency level
    • allocating adequate time to building networks
    • participation of all relevant stakeholders
    • having a clear boundary, either geographic or by area of specialisation
    • regular face-to-face contact through conferences and interagency meetings, with email and newsletters to provide ongoing support
    • participation in the management committees of other agencies
    • co-location of services.
  1. Participants placed a high value on appropriate referral. They used a range of referral methods, in response to the differing needs of clients including providing details of relevant agencies, contacting other agencies and negotiating with an agency on a client’s behalf. The referral destination was affected by the nature of the problem, client ability to pay, participant familiarity with the service, proximity of the service, and cultural and language issues.
  2. Knowledge of appropriate legal services varied widely. Many participants relied on pre-existing knowledge, rather than databases or other information sources to find agencies to refer clients to. Participants generally had a greater knowledge of local services than of non-local services. There were a number of instances of duplication of referral databases. Knowledge of other agencies appeared to be gained in an ad hoc way rather than through formal training. Participating in networks appeared to increase knowledge of other agencies.
  3. Inappropriate referral was identified as an issue. Participants identified a lack of knowledge of services, a lack of services to refer clients to, and a lack of clarity about the nature of services offered by particular agencies as contributing to inappropriate referrals. Among the agencies in the study, there were few strategies for tracking or formalising referrals.


Scott, S & Sage, C 2001, Gateways to the law: an exploratory study of how non-profit agencies assist clients with legal problems, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney