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Attorney General Mark Dreyfus recognises the unique value of health justice partnerships

HJA was honoured to welcome Attorney-General the Hon Mark Dreyfus KC, MP to give a keynote speech at our Health Justice 23 conference. Watch the speech here or read the transcript below!

Video transcript

Can I acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations as the traditional custodians of the land that we are meeting on today and pay my respects to elders past and present. And I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are with us today. Can I acknowledge survivor advocates and people with lived experience here in attendance and thank them for sharing their experience.

I’d like to acknowledge Meena Singh, the Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, and a long term friend of the legal assistance sector. And finally, can I extend my warm thanks to Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine and the team at Health Justice Australia for inviting me to speak here this afternoon. I’d like to recognize the work of Health Justice Australia in organizing this conference and all the speakers on the program for making the time to contribute their unique perspectives on the broad range of topics that you’ve all been discussing.

Health justice, partnerships and integrated service models are playing an increasingly critical role in the delivery of legal assistance. Legal need is often connected to other needs, in particular healthcare. And these models reflect and recognize that. The important work that you do reaffirms not only my view that legal assistance cannot and should not exist in a vacuum. Health Justice partnerships foster unique pathways designed to facilitate better access to justice for vulnerable and disadvantaged people.

I’d like to thank everyone here for your contributions. Whether you are from the legal, health or social services sector, whether you are in frontline service delivery, research or funding or policy development, or generously share your lived experience, your work is important. You contribute to addressing inequality, reducing instances of domestic and family violence, and improving health and mental health outcomes.

You uphold the rights of vulnerable people to live in their lives safely, securely and in good health. And today, you all gather here to further enhance this important work. The value of health justice partnerships should not be understated. Research tells us that people experiencing social isolation, disadvantage or trauma often do not recognize their problems intersect with the justice system. While they may not seek legal assistance, people will often present to other services in the community, such as doctors or community care organizations, to seek medical or psychological help. Health justice partnerships identify this critical intersection point and seek to equip health professionals with the skills to recognize when a person might be encountering a legal problem. Through this training, partnerships can enable discreet and efficient referrals, often delivered by co-locating legal professionals in a health setting. In this way, health justice partnerships play a critical early intervention role. As you would all be aware, legal issues can evolve into more serious and complex problems when left unaddressed. And when people do seek legal help themselves, they often only do so at a crisis point. The trusted timely guidance from a partnership service can make a real difference to someone’s life before an issue escalates.

Health Justice partnerships understand that legal, health and other problems are often intertwined and are most successfully resolved when approached holistically. Partnership service models focus on the whole individual to ensure that problems are not exacerbated or compounded and to avoid disadvantage becoming entrenched. These service models recognize that people and the issues they face do not exist in silos and that wraparound services are the most effective way to limit the likelihood of re traumatization or disengagement.

Health justice partnerships have grown to more than 100 across our nation, including Melbourne Community Legal just down the road. In my many interactions with health justice providers, I’ve been impressed. Your ability to deliver trauma informed services that provide medical, legal and pastoral support to your clients demonstrates this sector’s continuing commitment and investment in client welfare. Your work ultimately supports and is supported by the vital work undertaken by the health and social services sectors.

I recognize the value of these intersections needs to be taken into account when we consider what legal assistance should look like in the future, including how we resource it and how we measure its success. Health justice partnerships also play a valuable role in supporting a number of Australian government priorities. These include ending violence against women and children and responding to the abuse of older Australians.

Operating at the intersections of the health and legal sectors, Health Justice Partnerships are uniquely placed to respond to a number of pressing issues such as family and domestic violence, child protection, substance abuse, tenancy and housing and issues arising from individuals’ experiences of mental ill health or disability. As most of you would know, health justice partnerships began as a practitioner led movement driven by community lawyers who identified the need to collaborate with health services to improve client outcomes and to encourage earlier and better engagement with the justice sector.

Health Justice Partnerships now operate across the country in every state and territory. Despite this national coverage, each health justice partnership is unique. Part of what makes partnership and integrated services so effective is that they cater to the specific communities that they serve. And of course, this uniqueness can also present challenges. Developing and maintaining a service partnership requires commitment and genuine trust to identify competing priorities, to consider the broad range of client and patient needs, and to work collaboratively to find meaningful solutions that work for the partners and the people that they are there to serve.

What you do is no easy feat. However, the success of health justice partnerships and the achievements you are sharing at this conference are testament to the dedication, drive and capability of those who facilitate and participate in these partnerships, as well as the outcomes that can be achieved by working together. In a world of growing complexity and uncertainty, the importance of robust and innovative social health and legal services cannot be understated.

Innovation is, by its nature, challenging, meaning that gatherings like this one are all the more important. I’m sure that you’ll all be able to take away important lessons from this conference. I want to finish with some comments about the review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership. As I’m pretty sure most of you would be aware, it’s the key mechanism through which the Australian Government supports the work of legal assistance providers.

The National Legal Assistance Partnership is the primary source of Commonwealth funding for the legal assistance sector. It’s delivering over $2.4 billion over five years to community legal centres, to legal aid commissions, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services. The Australian Government is very proud to support the innovative service delivery models that health justice partnerships embody through the National Legal Assistance Partnership. I also understand that a number of legal assistance providers have used other National Legal Assistance Partnership funding to establish and run health justice partnerships targeted at issues such as mental health.

As many of you are probably aware, the National Legal Assistance Partnership is currently undergoing an independent review led by Dr Warren Mundy. This review is an opportunity to ensure the legal assistance sector is equipped to face current and future challenges. The review’s terms of reference include an evaluation of the integration, collaboration and innovation of service delivery within the legal assistance sector and with other areas of social service provision such as health and disability. In other words, Dr Mundy has been asked expressly to look at health justice partnerships and the way in which they might work, the way in which they can work better in the future.
What role health justice partnerships are going to have in the legal assistance sector in the next iteration of the National Legal Assistance Partnership, which of course is intended to commence on the 1st of July 2025. We’re currently two thirds of the way through the five years of the National Legal Assistance Partnership. I want to sincerely thank everyone who has contributed so far to the review through submissions and through meetings with Warren Mundy, which he has told me about.
The review has received over 100 submissions. Dr Mundy has been busily visiting every state and territory and meeting with people in every part of the legal assistance sector and it’s been really fantastic to see such a high level of engagement in what is a very, very important process. The final report of the review will be completed in early 2024 and it will inform future funding and policy arrangements for the legal assistance sector.

But we are at a something of an inflection point in legal assistance. I’m very keen to move forward with improvements in the sector after… I’m going to be briefly partisan and say nine years of neglect, which is what we’ve experienced. I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine, who recently announced that she will be stepping down as CEO of Health Justice [Australia] at the end of January 2024. I can remember meeting Tessa not long after she was appointed in 2016, and in that time Tessa has built Health Justice [Australia] as a national centre of excellence, with the aim of improving access to legal assistance through established partnerships of trust. The growth of this service delivery model, which I have always been enthusiastic about, but the growth of it is really a testament to the leadership that Tessa has provided.

Can I congratulate you, Tessa, on your success? Because I think it’s fair to say there has been success in the sector with the growth and I think increasing realization right across the legal assistance sector of why these partnerships work. People see and all of you know better than maybe anyone else why they work. But I increasingly hear from people not in a health justice partnership, but people at legal aid commissions, people at other community legal centres who say to me, we’re really interested, and they point to what is now possible. They point to a health justice partnership that they are now aware of. Ten years ago, we didn’t have that because there were only a handful. Now there are over 100, they are everywhere and the entire legal assistance sector can see what value they might bring. So congratulations, Tessa, on your success. I wish you all the very best for whatever your new endeavours might be.

I thank all of you for the invitation to speak here today. I wish you all very interesting and productive discussions for the remainder of the conference. And in case you’re in any doubt, I will just restate the support of the Albanese Labor Government for the legal assistance sector. Thank you very much.