Geesche Jacobsen | SMH | 6 September 2011
A STAFF health survey within Legal Aid NSW has exposed high levels of stress, concerns about the bullying of criminal lawyers and found that workers compensation claims for its criminal solicitors are running at twice the national average.
Coming as the government prepares to review the provision and funding of legal services in NSW, the survey found that 13 per cent of claims within the service are due to mental health problems.
The survey reports solicitors have had to interview clients in the street because of a lack of facilities. Inadequate resources and slow computer systems also contributed to their frustrations. Some lawyers said they were not always fully briefed at the start of a trial, had inadequate information to manage their cases and were poorly trained to handle emotionally charged situations.
Sources suggest legal aid solicitors sometimes see as many as 30 clients a day, allowing less than 15 minutes per consultation. Some solicitors outside of the Sydney CBD are understood to manage as many as 120 cases every month.
Last month, the Attorney-General, Greg Smith, informed staff of a government review of the provision of legal assistance to the community. The review will make some recommendations on how to improve services, especially to disadvantaged groups, but will do so considering ''the level of funding provided''.
Mr Smith has previously announced a review of the amount of legal work contracted out to the private sector. The review might also examine a controversial restructure of Legal Aid, which was announced late last year.
The health survey found 65 per cent of staff reported sleep difficulties and 36 per cent said they felt stressed at least once a day. The pace of work and time pressures were listed as major sources of stress. Staff felt bullied by managers or supervisors and reported problems with conflicting demands and burnout.
Many said the workplace culture encouraged ''toughing it out'' in difficult situations and seeking help was stigmatised.
They also mentioned the extreme emotional demands of their job, and many reported their clients were violent or aggressive and had unrealistic expectations.
About two-thirds of the administrative and legal staff of Legal Aid's criminal law division took part in the survey, but the report's authors admitted that results from more detailed focus groups were not random and ''influenced somewhat by … [staff] work commitments''.
It has taken more than a year to produce the results of the survey, which mirrors the complaints of two earlier surveys involving legal aid staff in 2008 and 2009.
The chief executive of Legal Aid NSW, Alan Kirkland, said he was taking the issue very seriously and would develop an ''organisational health and wellbeing strategy'' focusing on mental health, the training of managers and changes to the workplace culture.
''It is always a reality that Legal Aid will have a large workload. What we need to do is make sure that it's fairly shared,'' he said.
''What the report suggests is that most of our staff are in good health and possibly doing better than other lawyers.''
While the survey found staff reported similar levels of ''psychological distress'' to the general population, it also found there was a higher proportion of those with severe symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. The survey also found the staff surveyed felt committed to their work and many enjoyed working towards social justice objectives.
''Many of the stressors raised by staff in the present study are inherent to the work they do and the environment in which they do it,'' the study concluded.