Public legal services for disadvantaged people in NSW have reported difficulties in recruiting and retaining solicitors in regional, rural and remote (RRR) areas. Difficulties are also reported in attracting sufficient private solicitors to undertake legal aid work.
Within a broader context of the social and economic decline experienced by rural Australia, the populations of many RRR areas have been decreasing for decades. Mirroring this general decline, many country areas have lost doctors, dentists, teachers, lawyers and other professionals.
A limitation of much of the previous research into the availability of lawyers in RRR areas is a tendency to focus on the contrast between ‘the city’ and ‘the country’. There has been, however, at least some evidence to suggest that recruitment and retention problems are more nuanced and vary from region to region. The present research was undertaken to obtain more comprehensive location-specific information on the recruitment and retention of lawyers in RRR NSW.
This study was undertaken by the Foundation on behalf of the NSW Legal Assistance Forum RRR Working Group and was funded in large part by the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department Social Inclusion Division.
The aim of this study was to better inform strategies to improve access to lawyers for disadvantaged people in rural and regional areas by:
- identifying which areas of NSW are most affected by difficulties in recruiting and retaining lawyers practising in the public sector
- exploring differences between areas of high and low lawyer retention in terms of potentially relevant characteristics of these areas
- identifying likely reasons for success or otherwise in the recruitment and retention of lawyers in those areas.
In an attempt to thoroughly explore the issues, the Foundation used both quantitative and qualitative research methods. A snapshot was taken from the NSW Law Society’s data on all practising lawyers in NSW on 30 June 2009. A separate census was taken of all filled and vacant public legal assistance solicitor positions in NSW on 30 June 2009. This information was obtained from the three main public legal services in NSW — the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), NSW Community Legal Centres and Legal Aid NSW. In addition, the study examined all legal aid grants assigned to private solicitors in 2008/09 and all registered private practitioner legal aid panel members during that time.
The study also included a survey of selected solicitors who either were working in or who had left a public legal assistance service in RRR areas (including nominally identified ‘hard to recruit’ areas). Managers responsible for staffing RRR areas were also included among those surveyed.
- Only seven per cent of all public legal assistance positions in NSW were vacant on the census date. This was unexpected. In some country regions the actual level of vacant positions was well below the State average and in three RRR regions there were no vacant solicitor positions. Nevertheless, in a number of regions one or more of the three major legal assistance services did not have an office and consequently there were few public legal assistance positions in the first place.
- There were other indicators of recruitment and retention difficulties aside from vacancies. In some RRR areas the level of public legal assistance solicitor positions occupied by a non-incumbent (such as a person acting up in the position or a locum) was high. In many of the same areas, solicitor positions had been filled for only relatively short periods of time. The greatest concentration of recruitment and retention difficulties was noted for the Far West, Murrumbidgee and South Eastern regions.
- The ratio of residents to all locally based solicitors (public and private) increased with remoteness. Inner Regional areas had a ratio of one solicitor for every 1,000 residents. This increased to one solicitor for every 2,000 residents in Outer Regional areas. In the Remote and Very Remote areas of NSW, there was only one solicitor for every 3,000 residents.
- Nineteen Local Government Areas (LGAs) in NSW did not have a single solicitor — private or public — based in the area. All 19 LGAs were characterised by resident (and relatively disadvantaged) populations of less than 7,000 persons, and the populations of the majority were in actual or relative decline. This is likely to suggest that, in the more remote and less populated parts of country NSW, there may not be enough legal work — private or public — to sustain a full-time resident solicitor. People living in these areas may well have to travel to their closest regional centre to obtain legal assistance, although outreach and local court services may also be available.
- Solicitors in the most remote areas of NSW were generally younger and less experienced than elsewhere in the State. In contrast, solicitors in Inner and Outer Regional areas were older and more experienced than solicitors elsewhere in the State. Bearing in mind the lower salaries offered in some services, the qualitative interviews noted the particular difficulties in recruiting appropriately experienced lawyers to public legal assistance positions in RRR areas, especially the more remote areas of NSW which may offer little in terms of lifestyle benefits.
- The interviews with lawyers and legal service managers indicated that most lawyers working in RRR NSW were originally from major cities. The opportunity to gain legal experience was a major motivation for taking public legal assistance solicitor positions in RRR areas; while higher paying positions and, in remote areas, stress and burnout, were major reasons given for leaving such areas. The qualitative interviews also indicated that services went to great lengths to cover vacant positions and maintain continuity of services to clients. The challenges of remote area practice were particularly noted.
There are realities to the recruitment, retention and availability of lawyers in RRR areas that need to be acknowledged:
- Different RRR areas have their own unique characteristics. Some RRR areas have recruitment and retention difficulties and some do not. The difficulties experienced vary from region to region.
- Some RRR areas tend only to attract relatively inexperienced solicitors or solicitors prepared to stay for a fixed and relatively short period of time. However, having a more senior solicitor in more remote areas may be preferable given the nature of the work and the work conditions.
- Some RRR areas are experiencing economic, social and population decline and resident services, including legal services and private solicitor numbers, are likely to decline accordingly.
- There are significant disparities in the salaries of equivalent solicitor positions across the public legal assistance services. This almost certainly contributes to the movement of solicitors between these services and from more remote areas to inner regional areas and urban areas.
Given these realities, individual solutions to recruitment and retention difficulties need to be area specific, problem specific and, in some cases, position specific.
Legal assistance to disadvantaged people in NSW is provided by a range of legal services and these services are interrelated. While there is no overarching coordinated approach to the distribution and provision of these services, each service is affected by lawyer availability, recruitment and retention issues, particularly in regional, rural and remote areas. While ‘blanket’ solutions are not appropriate, a coordinated approach across the sector to address the availability, recruitment and retention of lawyers in RRR areas is important.