Saturday, September 17, 2011

Legal Aid lawyers speak out about stress

Brendan Trembath | The World Today | 12 September 2011

Listen to audio here

ELEANOR HALL: Lawyers who work for Legal Aid in New South Wales say they're insulted that their chief executive denies the organisation has a major problem with its staff's mental health and working conditions.

Alan Kirkland spoke to The World Today last week about a health survey which found that many legal aid workers felt stressed and overworked.

He said Legal Aid lawyers weren't as badly off as some other lawyers.

Brendan Trembath reports.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Legal Aid lawyers represent the disadvantaged in all sorts of cases from the local courts to the High Court.

Last week the Legal Aid New South Wales chief executive Alan Kirkland tried to make the most of a recent staff survey which exposed high levels of stress. Staff also complained about sleeplessness and overwork.

ALAN KIRKLAND: I think that we knew that our staff were likely to report high levels of stress. One of the interesting things about it is that they are possibly not reporting such high levels of mental health issues as other lawyers because there has been a lot of work in the last few years around rates of depression, anxiety and even suicide among the legal profession.

And one thing the study suggests is perhaps Legal Aid lawyers are doing better than some other lawyers but despite that, they still face some very significant challenges in their work and we are keen to increase the support that we provide to them.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Mr Kirkland's comments have caused more stress for his staff. One Legal Aid lawyer had this to say in a statement sent to The World Today.

EXTRACT FROM STATEMENT BY A LEGAL AID LAWYER: It is ludicrous for our CEO to claim there isn't really a problem with legal aid lawyer's mental health or our poor working conditions.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Legal aid lawyers are technically public servants and are not allowed to speak to the media. They risk their careers when they break that rule.

EXTRACT FROM STATEMENT BY A LEGAL AID LAWYER: The Legal Aid solicitors are outraged and insulted that their CEO has trivialised in his interview with you the results of the mental health survey and put down his own staff as not really having a problem. This is despite the same issues being raised in 2008 and 2009.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: The lawyer says this is insulting from a CEO who is not a practising lawyer.

A State Government website says Alan Kirkland has degrees in Arts and Law from the University of New South Wales and a Master of Business Administration from the Australian Graduate School of Management.

When contacted this morning Mr Kirkland said he had nothing further to add. One of the state's main unions wrote to him recently to complain about staff workloads. We have a copy of that letter.

It says, "The association is deeply concerned about solicitor workloads and in particular, the workloads carried by regional office staff which, we believe in many cases are excessive, unsafe and unsustainable."

The letter also says "we suspect that any audit of staff wellbeing and or workers compensation claims would demonstrate significant levels of work related stress and injury."

Thane Pearce from the Public Service Association of New South Wales who wrote the letter on behalf of the union's state secretary is on a day off today. Calls to his mobile phone were not returned.

ELEANOR HALL: Brendan Trembath in Sydney with that report.

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