Towards a multidisciplinary future: Giving vulnerable clients what they want.

MDP 2By Kat Ogilvie, Social Worker, CIJ

It’s well known that people rarely present with an isolated legal issue. Legal issues are often intertwined with associated social issues, such as mental health issues, economic disadvantage, family violence, tenancy instability, homelessness, physical health, relationship breakdown, just to name a few. Modern services need to become more responsive to the complex situations that people present with.  Just as people don’t have neatly carved out issues, professions can’t have nearly carved out roles.

The movement towards services that look holistically beyond a single issue (known by many names, such as multidisciplinary practice, integrated practice, or health justice partnership) have been highlighted recently in forums such as National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) conference, where countless presentations outlined successful partnerships between lawyers and social workers leading to better outcomes for people with legal and social support needs.

Importantly, discussions in these forums also focussed on the need for awareness of trauma informed practice for all professions working with people who have complex issues, in order to work holistically, not just addressing the presenting symptoms. Trauma informed practice also addresses the need for self-care and debriefing and an awareness of vicarious trauma for all that work with vulnerable people.

A number of developments this year have confirmed the increase in awareness of the importance multidisciplinary approaches, such as RMIT’s new dual qualification Master of Social Work/Juris Doctor. There is a slow but steady change in focus to placing the vulnerable people needing support at the centre of what we do, rather than asking our clients to fit in with the needs of the professionals providing a service to them.

The Mental Health Legal Centre’s Inside Access program supports women in prison and ensures that women exiting prison receive holistic support, addressing both legal and social support needs. More and more community legal centres are incorporating a social support element in their practice, particularly those with family violence or housing/homelessness programs.

There are many benefits to a multidisciplinary/integrated/partnership approach to supporting people with legal and health/social support needs. A few of the many benefits include:

Being responsive to the needs of vulnerable people. Sometimes a positive legal outcome for someone is addressing little more than the tip of the iceberg. Any ongoing underlying issues will continue to have a pervasive influence on client’s life.  We also know that people may not identify their problem as ‘legal’ in nature, so having multiple workers with various skills involved can help to identify issues and identify them early! The approach also stops people trekking from agency to agency, which increases risk of people falling through the cracks. Furthermore, trust gets established with certain agencies, so people are more likely to stay engaged with the service.

Skill match. Social work and lawyers have complementary skills and perspectives which ultimately leads to better outcomes for people using their service – social workers are taught to look through a structural lens, to look at systemic oppression, not just individual deficits. Lawyers are trained to solve the individual’s legal issue. Lawyers can be said to advocate for a person’s stated interests which may not necessarily be their best interests; where social workers can try to establish what is in the person’s best interests, taking into account their holistic circumstances. When these professions work together, we can find a more balanced approach.

Smarter ways. Approaches that look to provide holistic support to people for legal and social support needs will lead to timely identification of issues, which reduces the number of times people have to present to different services. This is a smarter and more cost effective way of working, leading to more long-term preventative solutions.

Professional Growth. A multidisciplinary approach means more professional satisfaction for those working in partnership. Social workers learn important skills around navigating the legal system and use of legislation. Lawyers can learn about the importance of self care, debriefing, supervision, trauma informed practice and ways of working with people experiencing emotional distress.

Ultimately, the two professions have a common grounding in social justice. The Australian Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics outlines that social work is committed to three core values: Respect for persons; Social justice; Professional integrity. The fact that social justice is one of social work’s core values means that community lawyers and social workers are fundamentally aligned in this quest.

However it’s not all rainbows and lollipops and of course any new way of practicing and bucking tradition has its challenges. Some of these are outlined here:

There can be a risk of ethical conflicts, where lawyers may feel strongly about legal professional privilege and confidentiality, as well as their duty to the legal system. One context where these issues may arise is in the family violence space, where the safety of children may be a consideration. Lawyers and social workers have different reporting obligations and risk thresholds. In Victoria (in 2017), social workers are not mandatory reporters to Child Protection by virtue of their profession, however social workers may choose to report because of an ethical obligation, or because of organisational requirements of their employer. There are also important considerations around files and note taking – social work file notes can be subpoenaed (it’s not common, but it does happen), whereas legal notes cannot. For this reason, how files are organised will be a consideration.

The different approaches that are sometimes employed by each profession can be a challenge. For example, lawyers are often seen as problem solvers and social workers seen as ‘talkers’ and working the problem out over time, with an emphasis on building relationships. The legal profession can be at times siloed by nature and find it easier to co-exist with social workers, rather than to truly integrate. Further, how to prioritise the various aspects of the client’s issues can cause a tension – does the legal matter take precedence over other issues like the person’s acute mental health issue?

Another ongoing challenge is around professional Identity. Social workers are notorious for not being able to articulate what they do, or often lack confidence in asserting their expertise. There could be a lack of training, especially for lawyers, around engaging with other professions. There could be perceived hierarchies and power imbalances between the two professions. Some studies into the area of lawyers and social workers working together report a lack of mutual respect for the other profession, which can lead to an under-appreciation of workers from other professions, which can lead to under-utilisation of experience and expertise.

Earlier this year, at RMIT’s Juris Doctor 10th anniversary event, Bevan Warner, Victoria Legal Aid’s Managing Director, spoke about the partnership between lawyers and social workers. He noted the differing priorities of the professions; social work prioritises relationships, the law prioritises rights; social work demands engagement with the personal while the law requires depersonalisation. Bevan stressed that each profession has an ethical obligation to learn and understand more about the other, to ensure there is respect and an abiding curiosity for each with the other – to be a “social justice force to be reckoned with!”

There are some simple ways to overcome some of the challenges of a multidisciplinary approach to supporting people with legal and social support needs. Some small but important steps that services can take to smooth over tensions that inevitably arise where passionate professions partner together. Some of these include:

Establish a clear model for navigating the professional relationships with appropriate protocols. This takes planning, discussions, commitment and creativity. All players involved need to develop shared goals and expectations and constantly re-assess how the model is going, importantly incorporating feedback from people using the service. It’s important to make sure that staff at all levels in the organisation need to be on board as it’s ultimately a change management process. A non-hierarchical attitude is beneficial here, services could consider a no ‘lead’ discipline when working with vulnerable people, focussing on the person and what they need.

Developing a culture of open and regular communication. Clear and good communication is key – both with service users and between professionals. These are ongoing relationships that need nurturing.

Respecting each other’s specialised knowledge/professions. This can be achieved through training around the different professions, fostering mutual respect and a partnerships of equals. Including seeing beyond stereotypes and developing clear position descriptions. Set up an organisational culture of respect.

Multidisciplinary practices are here to stay, they are the way of the future for working with vulnerable people. As a sector, we need to find a way to best work together, embrace the challenges and bask in the benefits and most importantly provide the best service that we can for people that too often get stuck on a referral roundabout, or fall through the cracks of siloed services.

People receiving a service often don’t care what profession is helping them, as long as they are getting their needs met! Lawyers in a health setting, or social workers/youth workers/advocates/case workers in a legal setting, whatever it is called and wherever it happens, it’s time for smarter ways of supporting the people that need multidisciplinary approaches the most.

Review: ‘The Storyteller,’ a co-production between prisoners in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company

drama masks

By Defah Dattner, Master of Social Work student

The Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC), women’s prison sits within the flat endless landscape of outer Melbourne where the last remaining gum trees hold on to the edges of creek beds rapidly being replaced by freeways, new suburbs and…prisons. Inside the walls of DPFC last night, a little bit of magic took place amongst tight security and a mixed audience of dignitaries, family, justice sector employees and prison staff. Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company, and the women of the DPFC collaborated to create what can only be described as remarkable musical theatre, accompanied by a pre-show art exhibition.

The production which was titled ‘The Storyteller,’ allowed for a unique insight into the intimate and personal experiences of the women at DPFC. It is not possible in so few words to do justice to the efforts, talent and open-hearted performances of the women on stage. The main narrative guided the audience through the individual journeys of the women’s lives; from homelessness to sexual exploitation, unwanted pregnancies and family breakdown, escalating debt, mental health challenges and addiction. The underlying theme was one of loss and grief.

The women conveyed their feelings of disconnection from their innocent childhood selves, where, as young girls they had all the same life dreams as any of us. They then guided the audience through their difficult journeys to incarceration, highlighting the intersections of crime and justice, discrimination and disadvantage.

An often, at once funny and emotional performance involving an array of story-telling methods, including the infusion of diverse cultural and spiritual practices, was underpinned by a critical and honest portrayal of the realities of being homeless and relying on crime to survive. The evening was not without political messages which were consistently woven throughout the narrative. Their meanings were clear, and presented the perspectives of those impacted by the ineffectiveness of social policy, and politicians who are ‘out of touch’ with the needs and lives of those living on the streets.

The play told a story of a mayor who was conflicted about her soon-to-be-announced infrastructure policy and the lack of consideration for the impact on homeless people’s lives. The mayor, very distressed, at one point walks out of a media interview and finds herself cold and confused sitting on a street corner. An elderly homeless woman places her blanket around the shoulders of the mayor who open’s her eyes to the women around her who all have voices and opinions to add to the debate.

In the final scenes of the play, the women find solidarity in their collective stories, and through more songs, rap, monologues and poignant disclosures of hardship they convey their ultimate strength, hope and vision for their futures as residing in their connection to the land and each other. The play was rich with symbolism, irony and above all, showed the very real experiences of these women and their individual stories of courage.

Accessing justice through technology

Technology and the Law

by Mark Madden, Deputy Director, RMIT Centre for Innovative Justice

I have a confession to make. I am not a lawyer — but have worked with and around lawyers and justice systems for a fair bit of my working life. I have unmet legal need — after being knocked off my bike last year, I am writing off the costs to replace my bike because the time and process required to take the person to a tribunal to get justice makes it simply not worth it.

I am also passionate about building a fairer community and — and I am grateful for those who work in the legal assistance sector and lawyers who do pro bono to help get people justice.

I am sceptical about the ‘innovation’ agenda — sceptical, not cynical — but I am open to the great potential of innovation as a process, particularly in the justice space, and I have been involved in some major technology ‘disasters’, and have learned a few lessons as a result.

Today, I want to start a conversation about innovation and what it means; talk about the potential to deliver greater access to justice and maybe even end the need for pro-bono lawyers; and suggest that the future of law and justice is ‘T-shaped’ or multi-disciplinary and invite you to become involved if you aren’t already.

A basic definition of innovation is a ‘method, idea or product that is new or perceived to be new’. It is important to add ‘perceived’ because sometimes in the innovation space, what was old can be new again! It is important to understand that innovation is a process — and that the quality of the process will be a key factor in the success of the innovation.

We often think of innovation as a product or a piece of ‘hard technology’, usually IT, rather than a new idea or new way of doing or looking at things. We also often think of technology in terms of products, apps for example, when ‘technology’ can be a process. Indeed, at the Centre, our approach to innovation is informed by a method or process, or ‘soft technology’, called ‘human-centred’ or ‘impact-centred’ design, which puts the needs of users at the centre of the process.

What is it that they need, whether as victim or perpetrator, as applicant and respondent or simply someone who just wants an issue resolved, even before its gets into the formal system? Restorative justice, for example, is a method or process or ‘soft-technology’, as is therapeutic jurisprudence and multi-disciplinary practice. It is arguable that ‘adversarial justice’ is ‘old technology’, unsuited to many areas of justice including sexual assault.

This ‘user-centred’ approach can deliver new and challenging insights: in the UK a few years ago they took a user-centred approach to produce a digital map of what they thought was their justice system.

A key outcome was that the justice system was not by any definition a system at all.

That was and remains a powerful insight if you are serious about the task of improving or indeed creating a genuine justice system and delivering greater access to justice.

What is innovation: the available technology?

When it comes to ‘hard technology’, however, there is plenty out there that can be and is currently being used in the justice sector, from mobile phones to artificial intelligence and machine learning. If you have a modern mobile phone with a virtual assistant you have both.

Many of you may have heard about ROSS, based on IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence platform, sometimes called the world’s first robot lawyer. Indeed, if you are a user of e-bay, either as a buyer or seller, and have had a dispute, your dispute has essentially been resolved by similar technology. This technology allows e-bay to resolve millions of disputes across the globe every year. You may also be aware of the use of so-called ‘chat-bots’ to help people deal with a range of issues from parking fines to applications for asylum.

However, this technology is only as good as the process of innovation that has influenced its design and deployment.

Access to justice, meeting unmet legal need

My interest in innovation in the justice sector is not driven by the need to make law firms more profitable or predict the likelihood of particular judges making particular decisions in particular cases. It is motivated by the desire to improve access to justice for those who currently have little or no access.

We know from the NSW Law and Justice Foundation Report of 2012 that there is a huge unmet legal demand in Australia; that legal problems are widespread and impact on many other areas of peoples’ lives.

We also know that a sizeable proportion of people take no action to resolve their legal problems and consequently achieve poor outcomes; that most people who seek advice do not consult legal advisers, and if they can resolve their legal problems, they do so outside the justice sector — perhaps, reflecting the comments I regularly hear from lawyers that you should do everything you can to avoid going to court!

We also know the criminal justice sector is under great stress and strain, with growing demand, limited resources and longer waiting times.

In my view, innovative thinking that drives the smart deployment of ‘hard technology’ has the potential to dramatically improve this situation, with some important caveats, which I will come to later.

For example, in civil justice, a report on OnLine Dispute Resolution by HiiL Innovating Justice based in The Hague, suggests that the clever use of ODR makes the promise of 100% access to justice possible. The report says ODR has the potential to solve the internal dilemma of courts (and governments) that goes something like this — if we offer more effective and fair procedures, we will be overburdened with cases for which we have no funds.

A structured and intuitive ODR process can help the vast majority of people resolve their own disputes and be costed in such a way that most litigants can afford the necessary fees, as well as enable greater co-operation between courts and tribunals.

And while it may change the role of lawyers — and indeed potentially make their work more interesting — it won’t necessarily change the need for lawyers, and it opens up a whole new — and affordable — legal services market. Imagine that.

An ODR court is underway in British Columbia, the UK is moving in this direction and the recent Victorian report on Access to Justice canvasses ODR. Digital technology is also already transforming our courts in other ways, which I haven’t gotten time to go into here.

However, this is where my scepticism, and the caveats, comes in.

This ‘hard technology’ has great potential to improve access to justice, but the effects will be limited it we don’t take the opportunity to deploy ‘soft technology’ like human-centred, or ‘impact-centred’ design to see the sector with fresh eyes, seek the views of users and take the opportunity to re-think and potentially re-create a system for the 21st century.

If we don’t do this — as Sir Ernest Ryder (President of Tribunals in England and Wales) has said, we simply risk fossilising old and out-dated processes and practices in a layer of ‘hard technology’. 

The existing approach and solutions has the potential to be very expensive and therefore unlikely to be embraced by governments. If we don’t take this opportunity, to rethink and redesign, if the solutions are not scalable and if it outcome is not going to be embraced or responded to by users’ (because they weren’t involved) then it is unlikely to succeed.

So governments, courts and organisations in the justice sector need to take the opportunity to rethink and redesign the delivery of justice — and their own internal systems — from the users’ perspective — from the laws and rules we created to the processes we support and fund — and then decide what solution will deliver better outcomes, which surely must be greater access to justice.

And in doing so, they need to invite new partners from outside, including from the innovation, technology and particularly the design communities — as well as their ‘clients’— to help them and jointly start to think genuinely outside the box.

This process of ‘co-design’ may have to be pro-bono, of course, — at the start!

T-shape justice reform

In short, justice reform needs to be multi-disciplinary, or ‘T-shaped’.

Two years ago, the Centre embarked on the Access to Justice through Technology stream (A2JTC) of RMIT’s Fastrack Innovation Program with the support of Victoria Legal Aid and the Federation of Community Legal Centres.

This is a program where the best and brightest students from across the University are given the opportunity to tackle an access to justice issue. While mentors from the legal assistance sector support the students, there were doubts at the start about whether it would work.  And, for good reason. We would be asking undergraduate students in teams of three, with no legal background, to use their design thinking skills and the skills and knowledge from their various disciplines to tackle complex social and legal issues. And to do it in 13 weeks!

This was no theoretical exercise. Their solutions had to be desirable, feasible and viable.

The outcomes were beyond expectation. The mentors were amazed by how quickly the students grasped the issues and just as importantly challenged the way they had thought about the issues.

Two of the projects on family violence were sent for consideration to those implementing the Family Violence Royal Commission and another two, addressing fines and infringements we hope to get to the market, although finding the resources in the sector to do this is another major challenge.

The solutions in the 2016 program were just as impressive with challenges including a solution to end the referral roundabout in the sector but track unmet legal demand in real time, provide legal education and advice in visual form for CALD communities,and helping to prevent young people being exploited at work.

I realised after the first year that we had created what has been referred to as T-shaped justice reform.

That is, the skills and knowledge of the teams combined deep knowledge of an area (represented by the vertical) with cross-disciplinary thinking (represented by the horizontal). I think this is the way of the future, and the lawyers and the organisations who can combine these, either internally or by co-opting and embracing others are also the lawyers and organisations of the future.


This brings me back to an interesting point that emerged during a series of discussions I had last year around design, technology and access to justice and in particular a Dutch online dispute resolution system, called Rechtwijzer.

The system development was informed by design thinking. Despite the fact that it was ‘humanising’ dispute resolution by empowering people to resolve their own disputes — it was in some instances referred to negatively as a ‘robot-law’.

However, as one participant reflected later ‘what could be more robotic than the way we lawyers currently work in a system that for most people does not compute.’

It is an interesting idea that good design coupled with the right ‘hard technology’ could help us bring more of the human element into our justice sector and deliver greater access to justice and indeed create a real system.

It is an idea or innovation worth pursuing, and you can start the journey, by walking a mile in the shoes of your clients or users of the justice sector by asking simple questions, ‘what are your needs? What was your experience?’ You can also think about how much of what you do is administrative and repetitive and takes you away from what you would prefer to be doing.

For centuries, justice has resisted or at least failed to embrace change. It has fought to keep pilot programs at the periphery and to insist that this is the way it has always been done.   Today, with technological innovations there is real potential to address access to justice as never before.  The process is challenging and rewarding but if we don’t take the opportunity to rethink, reshape and innovate, the header image accompanying this blog may be the future we face.