Community legal centres anticipate significant, long-term increases in demand for key services due to COVID-19 crisis


COVID-19 is not only a public health emergency, but a social and economic emergency. In addition to ill-health and deaths, it has already caused business closures, tens of thousands of job losses, evictions from residential and commercial tenancies, mortgage foreclosures and escalating public and private debt. These impacts throw up many legal issues that disproportionately harm the people and communities that community legal centres make it our core business to support: people living on low incomes or with insecure work, people with disabilities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, renters, people experiencing domestic violence, and more.

Across NSW, community legal centres form a vital part of community protection – in normal times and during and after emergencies like this one.

The 40 community legal centres embedded in communities across NSW are already responding to changed patterns of demand for legal assistance since the COVID-19 crisis. Traffic to Community Legal Centres NSW’s service finder app is up by 34% from this time last year. Central Coast Community Legal Centre provided more than double the number of legal advices between 24 March and 20 April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, and 56% of these advices were COVID-19 related. Across the sector and the state, centres are reporting big spikes in requests for legal assistance in some areas, particularly tenancy, welfare, parenting arrangements, domestic and family violence, discrimination and police complaints. In other areas, demand for services is steady, but is expected to spike, and to be sustained, once the immediate health crisis has eased.

Community legal centres’ legal and policy expertise has also been in very high demand. Many centres, including the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Refugee Advice and Casework Service and Redfern, Kingsford and Marrickville Legal Centres, have been working with government to ensure the public health response doesn’t disproportionately impact already vulnerable people and communities in NSW. To date, this has included highlighting the need to avoid the over-policing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the criminalisation of people sleeping rough, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in NSW prisons and immigration detention centres and advocating for appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of government action during these exceptional times.

Community legal centres are already stretched

Due to resource constraints many already struggle to meet regular demand for services. For example, Redfern Legal Centre has seen a significant surge in demand from international students facing destitution due to the COVID-19 crisis. Initially, the centre was forced to cut off its waiting list at 3 weeks and to turn away many people needing assistance. It has since been able to increase capacity and is no longer turning people away. However, without additional resources, this increased capacity will be difficult to maintain.

The pandemic will likely result in a large cohort of people who have not previously experienced financial disadvantage. The community legal centres sector will have a much-expanded constituency requiring assistance and support not just for a few weeks, but for years. It is widely accepted that recovering from the social and economic impacts of this crisis will likely take far longer than containing its immediate public health impacts. For the community legal centre sector to play its role in responding to this crisis effectively over the long term, more than a one-off injection of resources is needed. Centres need to be adequately resourced to provide ongoing supports to people throughout the long recovery period.

It will be important also to keep track of the additional costs centres will incur in trying to support employees at heightened risk of vicarious trauma. Hume Riverina Community Legal Service, for instance, reports an increase in the complexity of their existing casework: clients in greater distress, increased instances of difficult behaviour by other parties (in particular, perpetrators of family violence). The CLC is exploring whether additional support for staff wellbeing is therefore needed. Similar experiences have been reported from across the sector - staff are now providing services to larger numbers of clients with deep and enduring trauma, and they are doing so at greater distance from the protection and support of peers and supervisors. Centres are already incurring these expenses, with some purchasing group and individual debriefing services at a cost of up to $2,000 per month.

This report outlines changes to service demand experienced by community legal centres through the first few months of 2020 as this crisis has emerged, as well as changes to demand centres anticipate over the next 3-6 months and beyond as the crisis continues to evolve. Like the health crisis itself, this report is a work in progress. We will continue to update it as new service data becomes available.

Demand for assistance with specific legal issues has increased significantly since the start of the COVID-19 crisis

Demand for legal assistance with domestic and family violence matters has increased during the COVID-19 crisis. This is unfortunate but unsurprising given repeated warnings by domestic violence experts that the self-isolation measures at the core of the COVID-19 response could lead to a spike in domestic and family violence.

Data from 1 January to 31 March 2020, shows a significant increase in overall demand for Women’s Legal Service NSW services, across almost every problem type. Overall, demand for services increased by over 30% in the first three months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, including demand for help with problems related to domestic and family violence, assault, sexual assault and injuries compensation, child protection and contact arrangements, family law (including parenting arrangements, separation and divorce, and property settlements), child abduction, discrimination and police complaints.

In particular, demand for assistance with domestic and family violence, injuries compensation, sexual assault and related offences, and acts intended to cause injury has markedly increased for the first three months of 2020 as compared to the same period last year, in some cases by more than 100%.

Many domestic violence services had anticipated an enormous spike in demand for services due to the COVID-19 crisis. Despite the steady increase in demand experienced by Women’s Legal Service NSW, this expected spike is yet to be felt across the broader community legal centre sector. For example, both Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Service and South West Sydney Community Legal Centre report demand for domestic violence services is steady, with both concerned by the absence of significantly increased demand.

On the other hand, some services have seen demand drop slightly or referral patterns change. The Immigration Advice and Referral Service saw a marked – and concerning – drop off in demand from people experiencing domestic violence at the end of March. While Western NSW Community Legal Centre reports a drop in new referrals from the local Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service, they are seeing a surge in past clients contacting the centre.

One reason for this may be that many domestic violence services, including legal services, are still transitioning to remote service delivery models, which is affected their ability to make or take referrals and respond to requests for help. For example, Women’s Legal Service NSW has been forced to convert face-to-face outreaches to phone appointments and to close its Tuesday evening advice clinic, reducing many people’s access to support.

More worryingly, domestic violence services are concerned that many people at risk of domestic abuse are stuck in close quarters in isolation with their abuser, unable to safely reach out for help. As such, the true extent of the increased need for domestic violence assistance due to the COVID-19 crisis is likely still obscured. It is vital that front-line domestic and family violence services, including community legal centres, are prepared and resourced for a significant and sustained spike in demand.

Centre-level data on domestic and family violence services is reflected in state-wide CLASS data. Across NSW, services provided by community legal centres in relation to domestic violence protection orders increased by 10.1% for the period 9 January to 9 April 2020, compared to the same period 2019. Domestic and family violence services increased by a staggering 26.9% when compared with the same period in 2019. 

Women’s Legal Service NSW has also seen a significant increase in calls for family law assistance, including parenting arrangements, child contact and contact orders and parenting plans. It anticipates further increases in demand as the crisis progresses.

Illawarra Legal Centre, Elizabeth Evatt Community Legal Centre and South West Sydney Community Legal Centre all report an increase in demand for family law services particularly relating to parenting arrangements. While Hume Riverina Community Legal Service reports an overall decrease in demand, demand for family law advice has remained steady, and the majority of clients seeking assistance from Hume Riverina with family law matters during this period have been affected by family violence.

The NSW Welfare Rights Centre reports a significant increase in requests for social security legal assistance. Since 1 January 2020 there has been a 15% increase in the average number of calls to its advice line compared to the six months prior. In the three weeks before 20 March 2020, the Centre received 959 calls. In the 15 days after, it received 1,106 (an increase of 15%). Between 23 March and 10 April 2020, it received 17% more referrals than for the three weeks before (often an indicator of financial stress).

In response, the centre has opened a new weekly advice shift to try to meet some of this additional demand. The centre has been tracking COVID-19 specific queries, which currently account for some of this increase. Demand is expected to significantly increase over the medium and longer term, due to applications for income support being rejected or when debts are issued to people who are later found to have been incorrectly assessed as eligible for support. The centre currently expects a further 30% increase in the number of calls coming in once Centrelink starts to reject new claims for assistance.

Complicating matters further, many people seeking financial support will be doing so for the first time. As such, Welfare Rights Centre is planning a communications campaign targeting people who may never have engaged with Centrelink before, so that they know where to go when legal issues arise. They are hoping the campaign will reach 1 million people, which could further significantly increase demand for the Centre’s services.

These forecasts are deeply concerning as the social security legal assistance sector is already woefully under-resourced and unable to meet ordinary demand for its services.

Between 1 July 2019 and 3 April 2020, the Welfare Rights Centre received almost 11,000 calls to its advice line and over 4,900 calls to its admin line. In the same period, it provided 1,647 information and advice services and opened 60 representation cases. This indicates a huge level of unmet demand. In the past 9 months, about one third of people contacting the Centre have been unable to get through, often because they called outside the advice shift times, and often despite making repeated attempts to call.

Of the callers who did get through, one-third were assessed as having meritorious cases requiring representation, however many had to be subsequently turned away due to resource constraints. The data indicates a significant amount of unmet need, and as demand continues to increase as a result of COVID-19, many more people will miss out on the assistance they need unless further resources are provided to the community legal centre sector.

One of the first areas in which community legal centres experienced a significant and consistent spike in demand across NSW is tenancy advice. This reflects the fundamental nature of housing being crucial to people’s wellbeing and security, and the very real risk of eviction people living in the private rental market face if they lose their jobs.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis began, the community legal sector was under-resourced to deal with existing demand for assistance in tenancy matters. For instance, in 2019, around two thirds of people who called the Tenants’ Union of NSW during an advice shift were unable to get through. Of the one third of callers who got through, more than 60% had to call multiple times.

In March and April of 2020 alone, the Tenants’ Union of NSW website has had 2,213,817 page views. This represents a 631% increase on ‘normal’ website traffic and is equal to their total website traffic for all of 2019. Of all March and April page views, roughly half were for COVID-19 and Renting information, including over 200,000 views of the news on rental laws changing.

The COVID-19 and Renting factsheet has been viewed about ten times more often than a standard Tenants’ Union factsheet in normal times, with an excellent bounce rate, which suggests people visiting the page are reading the information.

The Tenants Union has also seen a staggering increase in views of existing factsheets (updated in March 2020 to account for COVID-19), compared with the same period in 2019:

  • 400% increase for the Ending Tenancy Early factsheet
  • 429% increase in the Rent Arrears factsheet
  • 286% increase for Landlord Ends Agreement.

In the first week of March 2020, calls to the Tenants’ Union doubled from the last week of February. Following that, calls have increased by between 10-20% per week.

Generalist community legal centres across NSW, are experiencing a surge in demand for tenancy advice. Redfern Legal Centre estimates tenancy inquiries have more than doubled over the past few weeks. Tenancy inquiries from international students have increased tenfold.

Data reported by individual community legal centres is backed up by state-wide data reported through CLASS. Across NSW, services to people with housing-related issues has increased by 14.8% in the period 9 January to 9 April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

Across the state, generalist community legal centres are also experiencing a surge in demand for assistance with employment law, including from migrant workers and international students. Marrickville Legal Centre has created a dedicated employment hotline and text line due to the increased demand it has experienced for employment law services. In its first three weeks of operation (17 March 2020 to 7 April 2020) the centre received 223 Covid-19 related enquiries to this new line.

The recently established Migrant Employment Legal Service (MELS), a collaboration between Kingsford, Redfern, Marrickville and Inner City Legal Centres, reports a significant increase in demand for employment law assistance in March 2020, as have Hunter Community Legal Centre, Elizabeth Evatt Community Legal Centre and South West Sydney Legal Centre.

And in just the last week, Women’s Legal Service NSW has seen a significant increase in inquiries to its working women’s service in relation to carers’ responsibilities and discrimination, which it predicts is related to the Covid-19 crisis and will continue to escalate.

Staff, volunteers, interns and practical legal trainees at Youth Law Australia (YLA) are working from home to help young people across NSW to access legal assistance. YLA is a technology-enabled service which has always been partly delivered through remote working, with Cyber Volunteers accessing YLA’s online workspaces through a secure online portal.

YLA’s experience of working remotely has been vital in ensuring that children and young people in NSW can access legal help throughout the crisis in greater numbers than ever before.

YLA’s data throughout this period demonstrates a significant increase in children and young people accessing the service in NSW. Compared to the same period in 2019 (January 25 – May 2 ) YLA’s data reveals:

  • An increase in children and young people looking for online legal advice;
  • An increase in children and young people experiencing family violence;
  • An increase in children and young people who are at risk of homelessness;
  • An increase in children and young people looking for legal information on the YLA website.

YLA has seen its NSW client intake grow 60% during COVID-19 compared to last year and, disturbingly, YLA is seeing dramatic growth in the experience of violence and abuse by young people, especially children, during the pandemic.  The graphs below for NSW show that growth in large part being driven by growth in family, domestic and online conflict, violence and abuse matters. Nationally, YLA reports that more matters are complex and urgent in COVID-19 than previously with image-based abuse matters (“revenge porn”/ “sextortion”/ grooming etc.) increasing at an unprecedented rate and requiring same day responses.

YLA’s staff are under immense pressure as they also look towards some loss of Commonwealth funding and pro bono support from 1 July 2020 that will cause the loss of one full-time Solicitor position. Other positions currently funded from YLA’s own savings and fundraising activities and that are directed to meeting the growth in demand since COVID-19 will also cease on or about 1 July 2020.

To find out more, you can visit YLA #fundjusticeforchildrennow campaign here.

Older Australians and, in particular, those who are vulnerable, frail or have chronic illness, are particularly at risk of COVID-19. As such, there has been an unprecedented demand for the services of Seniors Rights Services (SRS) with an increase in calls across all areas of its practice and an additional 291 inquiries in the last three weeks from older Australians and their families wanting advice and assistance to deal with a myriad of COVID-19-related issues. This is currently around an additional 20 calls every day and this number is expected to increase in the coming weeks.

Many callers are concerned about being denied access to loved ones in aged care, others about how to ensure their relatives are getting the proper care if they are not able to monitor the situation through daily visits. Many of these families are dealing with elderly loved ones who are dying, have dementia or other chronic illnesses and have relied on family supplementing their care. Callers are also worried about homecare and whether it is safe for their elderly relatives to continue to receive home care visits, and what impact cancelling these visits might have on safety and wellbeing. SRS has been advising industry, consumers and their families about the COVID-19 pandemic and the implications of health guidelines and where they intersect with human rights and the provision of continuous uninterrupted quality and care services. In addition, Seniors Rights Service has observed an increase in the number of older people reporting stress and anxiety, increased isolation from family and caregivers, and greater potential for abuse, both financial and psychological, of older people where their family members are also under increased pressure and strain.

SRS expects to see an increasing call on its services as this pandemic plays out across the country. SRS is also working closely with the Older People’s Advocacy Network (OPAN) to take calls from SRS’s 1800 number when it is overloaded and that the OPAN call centre also takes calls late after hours which are then referred back to SRS the following day for follow up.

With hundreds of thousands of people already out of work due to the crisis, unemployment expected to rise to at least 10% and businesses across the country struggling to stay open, levels of private debt in Australia are expected to soar.

Financial Rights Legal Centre experienced a significant surge in demand in early March, most of which related to advice about travel insurance. Since then, while overall demand has not spiked, the kinds of issues people are seeking advice about has broadened to include general insurance-related issues, and credit and debt problems, particularly from people experiencing higher levels of financial hardship. Given the public and private financial impacts of this crisis are expected to last for months or even years, Financial Rights Legal Centre suspects this relative lull is just the calm before the storm.

Now, lenders and energy providers are applying hardship provisions generously and granting broad access to assistance. Essential service disconnections, mortgage foreclosures and tenancy evictions have largely been suspended. This means that many people are being supported to cope for the short term. However, Financial Rights Legal Centre expects a big spike in demand in three to six months’ time, when these measures come to an end and the economy does not bounce back as fast.

Despite no overall increase in demand since March, Financial Rights Legal Centre has seen an increase in requests for disaster-related assistance, which includes a ‘pandemic’ category. The demand for pandemic assistance from Financial Rights Legal Centre has dwarfed even the late 2019 and early 2020 spike in demand for the centre’s services for bushfire-related assistance.

The Financial Rights Legal Centre website resources are also being used significantly more often through the COVID-19 crisis. Unique page views for the Financial Hardship factsheet over the past 30 days (between mid-March and mid-April 2020) are at 3,451. Unique page views for the same factsheet for the 30 days prior to that (between mid-February and mid-March 2020) were at 2,213. Unique page views for the same factsheet between mid-March and mid-April of 2019 were at 815.

Even for areas that have not yet seen a spike, demand is expected to increase as the crisis progresses.

Many community legal centres across the state have experienced that, outside the areas detailed above, demand remains steady or has even dropped in some cases.

Rather than demonstrating reduced need in the community for these services, this decrease may reflect the fact that many people are simply responding to the most immediate threats (to their housing, employment and income) presented by the crisis in the short-term. Two other explanations for this perceived drop in demand are disruptions to normal referral pathways, and the digital divide cutting many people off from services.

Another explanation for decreased demand where it has been experienced, is that referrals from other community organisations have dropped temporarily as they have focussed on transitioning to remote service delivery. Once these referring organisations are back up and running at full capacity, affected community legal centres anticipate a flood of referrals. For example, both Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre and the Australian Centre for Disability Law saw an initial decrease in service demand in mid- to late-March as lockdown measures were strengthened. Demand for these centres returned to normal the following week once referring agencies had implemented the transition to remote working arrangements. Similarly, community legal centres that regularly receive referrals from Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services have experienced a drop in demand as workers and workplaces adjust to working from home. Many expect this drop to be reversed in the coming weeks.

More worryingly, decreased demand may also be caused by the digital divide: as more and more front-line services, including community legal centres, transition to remote working arrangements, people who can’t afford, access or use technology, are simply locked out from accessing the supports they need.

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII), provides a comprehensive picture of Australians’ online participation. It measures three vital dimensions of digital inclusion access, affordability, and digital ability. The ADII compiles numerous variables into a score from 0 to 100. The higher the overall score, the higher the level of inclusion.

According to the ADII, groups with the lowest levels of digital inclusion in Australia include households with annual incomes of $35,000 or less (43.3), people who have internet access only through a mobile phone (43.7), people aged 65 years and over (48.0), people with low levels of educational attainment (secondary or lower) (49.4), people with a disability (52), people who are unemployed (53.8) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (55.1). Digital access is already a significant issue for people in regional areas, where internet access is less reliable. Many clients of regional, rural and remote (RRR) community legal centres are now even more disadvantaged and isolated, because they may not have the internet access or phone reception they need to access support from community legal centres and other services. 

So, it is highly likely that the people and communities that make up community legal centres’ core client groups are still in need of support but are simply unable to access services. And this is despite centres’ best efforts to remain open and to deliver high-quality services remotely.

This immediate drop in demand speaks to a need to invest in measures that will address the digital divide and ensure people experiencing high levels of social and economic disadvantage remain connected to essential social supports. Even if community legal centres are supported to increase their digital capacity and literacy, if people and communities remain digitally excluded, they will remain unable to access the assistance they need. Community Legal Centres NSW and Just Reinvest are exploring the feasibility of an initiative that would deliver free mobile phones with data packages to 1,000 Aboriginal people unable to access any kinds of online or phone services, at a cost of $1m. Any equipment would obviously need to be supported with training.

Community legal centres anticipate that increased demand for services will be maintained over the long-term as people and communities struggle to recover from the social and economic impacts of the crisis

Many community legal centres anticipate that any current lull in demand simply foreshadows a huge spike in demand for services when centres’ doors open again, and likely from people in far worse social and economic circumstances whose legal issues have escalated throughout the time they are unable to access services.

As noted above, the Welfare Rights Centre of NSW has already seen a marked increase in demand for services in the first quarter of 2020 and expects to see requests for assistance in relation to Jobseeker payment applications increase over the next 2–3 weeks as Centrelink finalises assessments and some people’s claims are rejected.

While it has seen an immediate drop in demand for help with complex debt matters, the Welfare Rights Centre also anticipates requests for assistance in relation to social security debts connected with Jobseeker payments will spike after the immediate health crisis has ended. Currently, Centrelink is working extremely hard to process applications as quickly as possible. Rightly, this approach will ensure people who have lost their jobs can access much needed financial support as quickly as possible. But it also carries with it a greater risk that down the track people will be found to have been incorrectly granted access to the payment and issued with debts that they will need legal help to manage.

Across NSW, community legal centres are deeply concerned about the expansion of police powers to enforce public health orders legislated in response to COVID-19 in NSW. The Human Rights Law Centre, amongst others, has clearly articulated the risk that these powers will be disproportionately exercised against people and groups within the community that already have high rates of contact with the criminal justice system, including people experiencing homelessness and mental ill-health, people with cognitive disabilities, younger people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In late March, the Intellectual Disability Rights Service provided its first legal advice to a person with a cognitive disability who was issued a fine under these new powers. Women’s Legal Service NSW also reports that in March 2020, for the first time ever, police complaints moved into the top 20 issues being raised by callers to the centre. While acknowledging the Police Commissioner’s statement that NSW Police do not intend to seek an extension to these powers beyond the first 90-days, the risk remains that the powers will not be repealed. If expanded police powers remain in force, community legal centres anticipate a spike in police complaints.

International Social Services Australia (ISSA), expects that its caseload will increase once the crisis has ended and international travel restrictions are lifted. ISSA provides legal and other supports to families across international borders, including those experiencing international parental abduction. Unsurprisingly, as international travel restrictions have been implemented by a growing number of countries, ISSA’s international parental abduction caseload has decreased dramatically. However, the service anticipates an increase in cases when travel restrictions are eased and some parents, currently stuck overseas with their children, choose not to return to Australia.

Finally, a number of generalist community legal centres have also expressed concern that measures implemented by local courts in response to the COVID-19 crisis will result in increased demand for court advocacy and duty services once the crisis ends. For example, many local courts are issuing three- to six-month adjournments for matters, or extending orders, including Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders. This will create a massive backlog of matters for under-resourced local courts, particularly in regional areas. Once social distancing measures are lifted, there will be a corresponding increase in demand for court-based services delivered by community legal centres.