Anna Patty | SMH | 27 December 2011
PEOPLE under the age of 18 are the most frequent users of Legal Aid services in NSW, research has found.
While the bulk of people who turn to Legal Aid for free legal assistance are adults charged with criminal offences, they usually only use the service once or twice.
Legal Aid NSW has profiled its most frequent users for the first time and has found that 90 per cent are children or young people under the age of 21.
The findings, published in its latest annual report this month, show the average age of young people making their first contact with Legal Aid is 13.
The study looked at Legal Aid clients who were returning for further help and who may not be getting their needs met.
Access to Legal Aid is means- and merit-tested for adults, but not for anyone under 18.
The study, which looked at the 50 most frequent users of the service between July 2005 and June last year, found one young person had used the service 159 times. More than three-quarters of frequent users of the service were Australian-born males.
''Not surprisingly, our high service users were concentrated almost entirely in our criminal law practice,'' the report said.
Three-quarters of the young people in frequent use of Legal Aid had been victims of neglect or had experienced violence in the home as children.
Almost half had been diagnosed with mental illness, a third had cognitive impairment and two-thirds had experienced being homeless.
''Too often, court is the critical and common intervention point,'' the report said.
''We share our high service users with many other agencies involved in the criminal justice and human services systems.''
The researchers suggested agencies including the Department of Community Services and Legal Aid could be working together more effectively to help resolve the complex needs of youth requiring frequent use of legal services.
The researchers said other studies had shown the number of children in out-of-home care had doubled between 2005 and 2010.
A review of the NSW juvenile justice system had said the increasing number of children and young people involved in child protection and out-of-home care systems suggests there will be an increasing number of children and young people at risk of entering the juvenile justice system in coming years.