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Rawsthorne, Margot --- "Law by telecommunications: the magic solution for rural Australians?" [2001] AltLawJl 24; (2001) 26(2) Alternative Law Journal 85

Law by telecommunications: The Magic Solution for Rural Australians?

The position of the National Network of Women’s Legal Services, on the federal government’s Law by Telecommunications Proposal.

Margot Rawsthorne[*]

Over recent years many government agencies have expanded their use of information technology for the provision of services. This article explores the appropriateness of information technologies in the provision of legal services to rural Australia currently being championed by the Commonwealth Attorney-General[1] and outlines the position of the National Network of Women’s Legal Services (NNWLS)[2] in response to this initiative.


On 13 May 1988 the Commonwealth Attorney-General announced $3.090 million over four years for the provision of legal services to regional, rural and remote (RRR) Australia via telecommunications channels.[3] One year later, the Hon. Daryl Williams announced the further allocation of $3.1 million over three years for the provision of legal services via telecommunications channels, in this case in the area of Family Law.[4] In July 1999 Cutler & Company under contract with the Family Law and Legal Assistance Division of the Attorney-General’s Department released a Scoping Study following three months research.[5] No consumer of legal services in rural Australia was included in the research. As a result there is no way of knowing whether the delivery of services via telecommunications would meet the needs of residents of rural Australia. Accordingly, the initiatives are predicated on an untested belief and assumption that this model of service delivery is appropriate.

In February 2000 Cutler & Company released a further report entitled Development of a Generic Model for a Legal Service Delivery Platform.[6] A Steering Committee was established by the Commonwealth Attorney- General’s Department in relation to the RRR initiative, with community legal centre representation. However, the Steering Committee has never met. No formal consultation process has been undertaken in relation to the Family Law initiative, with the Scoping Study simply recommending that it be an ‘add on’ to the RRR initiative. In March and December 2000 the NNWLS wrote to the Attorney-General’s Department seeking input, particularly into the Family Law initiative. However, no formal opportunity was provided for this to occur.

In January 2001 the Family Law & Legal Assistance Division of the Attorney-General’s Department released an ‘Information Paper’ providing more details of the proposal. The proposal, as it currently stands, involves:

• the establishment of an Internet portal (by February 2001);[7]

piggy-backing on the existing Centrelink Call Centre to provide a national referral service with a focus on primary dispute resolution services (PDR) (by June 2001); and

the granting of an additional $50,000 to 14 identified RRR community legal centres across Australia to take referrals from the Call Centre.[8]

Magic solutions or a waste of public funds?

It is very concerning that some three years after the allocation of these funds the proposal remains vague and, in our view, ill conceived. Drawing on our experience providing legal services via telecommunication, our work with rural communities and our understanding of the legal system, the NNWLS is concerned that these valuable public funds will be wasted. We believe the current proposals:

• fail to address the primary needs of clients, namely, legal advocacy and representation;

• duplicate existing service infrastructure without enhancing or value adding to those existing services;

• raise serious concerns in relation to staff training and quality control issues of the call centre;

• place clients on a referral merry-go-round; and

• are reliant on inadequate project research and development.

In our view greater consultation and discussion with those currently providing legal services via telecommunications and, most importantly, residents of rural Australia is required before the new service is established. If this consultation and discussion does not occur we fear the project will result in duplication, significant waste of funds and very poor outcomes for residents of rural Australia. To date this project has developed in a complete void of input from those currently delivering legal services via telecommunications. We are extremely concerned that the Information Paper suggested that the Internet Portal should be available from the end of February (the same time submissions were to be accepted) and the whole project operational by the middle of 2001. Previous government initiatives ‘fast tracked’ have created more problems than solutions for clients and required many more months to ‘iron out’ problems that should have been identified in the development phase.

Failure to address the primary needs of clients, namely, legal advocacy and representation

The proposal fails to recognise that the primary need of those disadvantaged within the legal system is access to free or affordable legal advocacy and representation. In recent years the Family Court has witnessed an explosion of self-representation due to the difficulties accessing legal aid.[9] Rural Australians are likely to feel disappointed that none of the $7 million allocated to these projects will be used to enhance access to legal advocacy and representation. The allocation of an additional $50,000 to the 14 identified community legal centres has the potential of improving access to legal advice and information, however, it is our experience that disadvantaged consumers of legal services require much more, particularly those who reside in rural Australia.

Recent years have seen major funding cuts to both the Family Court and the legal aid budget. We fear that the government’s strategy to divert families from litigation in family law matters[10] is driven more by economics than social policy. We are concerned that the proposed Call Centre will refer callers inappropriately to PDR Services. It is not appropriate for non-legally trained staff to assess client legal needs and rights. We fear that some callers may be led to believe court processes are not available to them. It is clear from our work with women that PDR processes for family law matters involving abuse or violence are not only inappropriate but are also a continuation of abuse. The litigation process offers procedural safeguards, with the case management guidelines and rights of appeal. It is therefore important that a party’s access to the court stream is preserved in all cases.

Existing service initiatives that employ technology (whether via the phone or the internet) have highlighted the partial nature of this mode of service delivery. Without adequate follow up, face-to-face options and a holistic approach to service delivery those most disadvantaged within the community (those with poor language skills, those who for historically and cultural reasons feel alienated from the legal system, those feeling marginalised from the mainstream) will not be assisted. Not surprisingly given their personal and financial resources the most disadvantaged in our community often require court intervention and comprise a significant proportion of the 5% of family law matters that proceed to hearing. It is difficult to see how this proposal will assist those in greatest need.

Duplication of existing services and infrastructure without enhancing those existing services

The NNWLS rejects the Information Paper assertion that the initiative ‘will help to improve targeting, coordination and accessibility of information and support for people needing assistance’.[11] It is our belief that the proposal duplicates services provided on a State level by legal aid commissions, law societies and, in some cases, community legal centres. The proposal will simply add a national layer of referral to an already complex legal services network. The focus on referral only will lead to clients being placed on a ‘referral round-about’ and increasing frustration at the lack of ‘help’ various telephone services are able to provide. It is very disappointing that the project does not ‘value add’ to any of the existing services with expertise in the provision of telephone-based legal services. In early discussions with Cutler & Company there seemed to be recognition of the value of enhancing existing expert service delivery, but this has been lost completely in the current proposal. It appears that a complete newcomer to the arena, Centrelink, is the preferred provider of the service.

One of the underlying assumptions of the proposal is that people are unable to find their way through the legal system. This is not the experience of the NNWLS. Rather our experience is that the existing network of legal services (legal aid, the private practitioners, courts and community legal centres) are unable to meet the demand for services. The Legal Assistance Needs, Phase II study indicates that only 9% of low income households with legal needs did not know where to go for help.[12] Awareness among low income householders of legal aid services was very high (97%).[13]

As previously stated the NNWLS supports the use of information technologies to enhance the provision and availability of legal information. We are aware that there are currently many initiatives looking at enhancing access to legal information. It will be extremely important that the proposed Internet Portal links effectively with existing sites. Research recently undertaken by the Law Foundation of New South Wales highlighted the growing number of law and justice sites on the Internet, the need for improved integration of these sites and the increasing complexity of user access.[14] Many of the law and justice sites identified by Internet searches are American because US-based search engines are used in Australia.[15] Given the timeframe for establishment it would hardly seem likely that a comprehensive picture of existing and proposed initiatives will be possible. McKibbin & Scott note:[16]

There is a danger … that the public will become more confused, not less, as they discover large amounts of material, with no context for understanding what they find. They may find information in the wrong jurisdiction and lots of cases but have no way of identifying the important ones … there is still a need for guidance and pathways … guides through the maze.

No additional funds are envisaged for Women’s Legal Services under the proposal. While there is no national data on demand for NNWLS services a recent independent study of the telephone advice lines operated by NSW Women’s Legal Resources Centre indicates a huge unmet demand. Telstra data over a randomly selected two-week period revealed that only 1 out of every 25 calls could be taken.[17] This is despite the Centre running 54 hours of advice line a week. Telstra estimated that in order to meet the evident demand the Centre would have to increase current service delivery at least five-fold.[18] Forty eight per cent of the clients contacting the Centre in 1999/2000 were recipients of social security benefits or had no income at all.[19] These figures indicate that access to justice for disadvantaged people is in crisis. We are extremely disappointed that the initiative will do little to assist those most in need of assistance and, we fear, will exacerbate the situation by referring more callers to our already stretched services.

Accuracy and appropriateness of referral information

The aim of the initiative to ‘provide a referral service for Australians living in rural, regional and remote communities’[20] assumes there are legal services to which these people can be referred. It is the Network’s experience that a major barrier facing rural people with legal problems is the shortage of legal services on the ground. Many women who are unable to access a solicitor in their region due to legal conflict contact us. We note that the proposed initiative includes an expansion of telephone advice services provided by 14 existing community legal centres. While this is welcome we do not see that this will overcome the problem of legal conflict and the need for advocacy and representation across rural Australia.

The accuracy, comprehensiveness and timeliness of the referral information is particularly important. While this sounds a straightforward exercise the inadequacies of many existing databases suggests otherwise. The NNWLS has noted a recent marked increase in clients calling from interstate after obtaining an individual centre’s phone details from the Internet. In the majority of cases we have been unable to provide comprehensive advice to these clients as their matters involve a mix of Commonwealth and State jurisdictions (for example, family law and debt matters). Our limited ability to assist and the necessity of referral to another service frustrate these clients, even though it was the service they should have contacted in the first place. In terms of our services it means a significant increase in costs as the fees by 1800 phone calls come from our already stretched budgets. Recent research questions the usefulness of information without in person support:

I would strongly argue that in the short term at the least the key to the successful delivery of legal information and services via the Internet is to use it as an adjunct to in person support. For this to be successfully achieved those providing the in person support must be adequately resourced and have access to the Internet and the ability to use it effectively. There is a need to use the technology to enhance social information networks rather than replace them.[21]

Training and quality control issues of the call centre

We reiterate our concern about the training provided to call centre staff and question whether Centrelink is an appropriate provider for such a service. From the Information Paper we understand there is no intention of employing legally trained staff at the call centre. A recent service evaluation of the telephone advice lines operated by NSW Women’s Legal Resources Centre highlighted the importance of access to qualified solicitors with expertise in the area of family law.[22] The government’s own Legal Assistance Needs Phase II Study found that clients felt:

Telephone information services have potential to become of more help, if the services could be easier accessed and could provide advice as well as information.[23]

We can only assume that the non-legally trained staff of the Centrelink Call Centre will not be providing legal advice. It is our experience that clients not only need advice on what the law says but also on legal strategies. In the absence of legal aid many people, particularly those in rural and remote regions, need to be self-advocates. This means negotiating with chamber magistrates, Local Courts and other related services. Staff with expertise in family law and an understanding of the operation of courts etc. are able to resource clients to continue a matter and to reach a satisfactory completion. Staff from NNWLS are able to advise clients on what to include in Affidavits, which Form they need to fill in, the wording of Orders sought, how to ensure proper service of documents and an estimate of how much they could negotiate in a property settlement. It would seem unlikely that the proposed Centrelink Call Centre would be able to provide any of this support to clients.

Given the government’s commitment to transparency and purchaser/provider funding models, we are curious that the project has not gone to competitive tender. We note that recently funded services from the Commonwealth have been required to tender for funds and to specify their risk management strategy. We are doubtful that Centrelink would necessarily be the best provider given they have no existing expertise in legal matters and, according to anecdotal evidence, already receive large numbers of complaints about their current call centre services.

Inadequate project research and development

While the government has invested considerable funds into the research and development aspects of these projects we question the value of the outcomes. The Information Paper notes the combining of the Regional, Rural & Remote telephone advice line and the National Family Law Telecommunications Advice & Information Service was ‘based on the findings of the scoping study’ completed by Cutler & Company Pty Ltd.[24] The research undertaken by Cutler & Company did not investigate Family Law issues at all. The comment by Cutler & Company about combining the initiatives appeared to be an afterthought. It is extremely difficult to accept that a national online service ‘would meet the objectives of both initiatives’[25] as there has never been clarity about the objectives of either initiative. The only previous articulation of the objectives of these projects has been via Press Release from the Attorney-General,[26] containing many generalisations and contradictions. It would also seem problematic to assume that people in rural, remote and regional centres primarily have family law problems. If this initiative is truly aimed at addressing barriers to services for those residing outside large urban centres then it cannot be restricted to only family law.

The project research and development has not addressed the technological barriers to the proposal. Many rural residents complain of the inadequacy of the current infrastructure provided by Telstra, particularly in relation to the cost and reliability of Internet access. Those Women’s Legal Services providing services in rural Australia also face these problems. Rural connection to Internet service providers is significantly higher than urban connection and in many communities there is only one provider, reducing the ability to ‘shop around’. Home Internet access and use has been shown by research to be nearly exclusively the domain of wealthy individuals and families. In 1998 only 19% of all households had access to the Internet from home, with income being a major factor in determining access. Less than 10% of households with incomes below $27,000 had home Internet access. Alarmingly — for this proposal — more than 73% of home Internet users were located in capital cities.[27] There are clear dangers relying on the Internet as an access strategy given current trends towards ‘information rich and information poor’ members of the community.


Information technologies and telecommunications are not the ‘major solution’ to the legal problems facing residents of rural Australia. In an election year there is concern that the Attorney-General’s Department will ‘fast track’ these ill-conceived initiatives in an effort to be seen to be ‘doing something’. Residents of rural Australia can rightly ask: why have these initiatives taken so long? How will they help me access a solicitor? Why is the government investing funds into more referral services when what is needed is services on the ground?


[*] Margot Rawsthorne is the Coordinator of the Women’s Legal Resources Centre NSW.© 2001 Margot Rawsthorne (text)© 2001 Jane Cafarella (cartoon)

[1] Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department Information Paper on Law by Telecommunications Proposal, Canberra, 2001.

[2] The National Network of Women’s Legal Services comprises 15 specialist legal services across Australia that provide advice, assistance and resources to more than 23,000 women and children each year. On average 25–30% of the Network clients live in rural Australia.

[3] Attorney-General, the Hon. Daryl Williams News Release — Community Legal Services Expanded, 13 May 1998.

[4] Attorney-General, the Hon. Daryl Williams, News Release — National Family Law Telecommunication Advice and Information Service, 11 May 1999.

[5] Cutler & Co. Pty Ltd, The Scope for Delivery of Legal Services to Regional, Rural and Remote Australia via Telecommunications Channels, Canberra, 1999.

[6] Cutler & Co. Pty Ltd, Development of a Generic Model for Legal Service Delivery Platform, Canberra, 2000.

[7] The portal had not been established at the date of writing. However, our understanding is that the Attorney-General remains committed to the initiative going ahead without any further amendment.

[8] Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, above, ref 1.

[9] For a discussion of the reasons behind this ‘explosion’, see Dewar, J., Smith, B., and Banks, C., Litigants In Person in the Family Court of Australia, Research Report No.20, Family Court of Australia, 2000, <> .

[10] Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, above, ref 1, p.2.

[11] Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, above, ref 1, p.2.

[12] Rush Social Research Agency & John Walker Consulting Service, Legal Needs Assistance Research, Phase II, Attorney-General’s Department, Canberra, 1999, p.20.

[13] Rush Social Research Agency & John Walker Consulting Service, above, ref 12, p.19.

[14] Scott, S., How Do People Access And Use Legal Information? Implications of the Research for Delivery via the Internet, Law Foundation of New South Wales, Sydney, 1999.

[15] Scott, above, ref 14.

[16] McKibbin, E. & Scott, S., Community Access to Legal Information, paper presented at Strait to the Future Conference, 1999; also published in (2000) 8(1) Australian Law Librarian 17.

[17] Urbis Keys Young, Evaluation of the Telephone Advice Services of Women’s Legal Resources Centre, Sydney, 2000, p.iii.

[18] Telstra, Women’s Legal Resources Centre — Lidcombe — Traffic Study — 17 July 2000 Sydney, 2000, and Telstra, Women’s Legal Resources Centre — Lidcombe — Traffic Study -24 July 2000 Sydney, 2000, p.9.

[19] Women’s Legal Resources Centre, 1999–2000 Annual Report, Sydney, 2000, p.44.

[20] Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, above, ref 1, p.1.

[21] Scott, above, ref 14.

[22] Urbis Keys Young, above, ref 17, p.17.

[23] Rush Social Research Agency & John Walker Consulting Service, above, ref 12, p.29, emphasis added.

[24] Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, above, ref 1, p.1.

[25] Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, above, ref 1, p.1.

[26] Attorney-General, above, refs 3 and 4.

[27] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Use of Internet by Householders, Australia, (Cat. No. 8147.0) 1998.

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