Legal Concierge program paving the way to justice

Assistance strategies that help to connect people in need with services that can help them can make a big difference.

Clare Kennedy
Thursday, December 14, 2023

Victoria Law Foundation’s recent Public Understanding of Law Survey found widespread legal need, including many who don't see law as relevant to them and consequently, don’t try to obtain legal help. Assistance strategies that help to connect people in need with services that can help them can make a big difference.

Moonee Valley Legal Service’s Legal Concierge Program is one such strategy.

Building connections with community

Established in 2021, the Legal Concierge Program was designed to build new connections with local community housing estate residents. The evidence is now in. Legal concierge workers successfully engaged the community, demystifying law and connecting community members in need with assistance. The legal service successfully reached more people than before. So why did the initiative make such a difference?

The story began in 2020 when the legal service realised that many housing estate residents weren’t seeking help for legal problems. Although the service was running online legal information sessions during the pandemic, attendance was sporadic.

‘A relationship between the legal service and the community just wasn’t there. It was really hard knowing that people needed legal information, but weren't getting it,’ says Katia Lallo, Community Partnership Lead.

Seeking a new engagement model, Moonee Valley Legal Service drew inspiration from the Health Concierge approach used in community health, which employed housing estate residents to disseminate critical health information to people in housing estates during the COVID pandemic and lockdowns.

Adapting that model, the legal service identified young people from the public housing estate who could connect community with legal services. In partnership with Inner Melbourne Community Legal, the legal service obtained funding, and trained nine young community leaders in community development, legal education, and office skills. The team then set out to build connections in the community, and a bridge to the legal service.  

The young leaders led legal information sessions, and reached out to schools, the library and the housing estate. ‘Putting our faces out there really helped us build that rapport, not only with the community, but also the local organisations,’ Esset Kahsay says.

Esset is a paralegal and law student who is employed as a legal concierge in the program. She grew up in the housing estate and has a keen understanding of the residents’ perspectives and barriers to getting legal help. She is also a trained bi-cultural worker.

Bi-cultural workers bridging the gap

‘Bi-cultural workers use their cultural knowledge and understanding of how communities work. It may involve translating, drawing on lived experience and community connections,’ she explains, ‘all of which helped build trust between the legal service and communities they serve.’

She describes multiple benefits that arose from the program: ‘Having legal concierges sitting in with lawyers, for example, made clients feel very comfortable because they were seeing a person of their own.’

Other insights helped the service improve its communication. ‘When we started engaging, we said to people, “We can help you with your fines. We can help you set up a payment plan,” and that made the difference.’

Legal concierges with paralegal and social work skills were able to support clients during lawyer interactions. For example, as Esset explains, a client was worried when the lawyer picked up their file and started looking through documents. ‘The client said, “What are you doing?” And I was able to say; “He’s just looking for the paper he needs.” It was just the kind of reassurance the client needed.

From the outset, the Legal Concierge Program invested in foundational work to build the community’s trust and understanding of the service. ‘Visiting your legal service was you making a scene and being a bit dramatic. And it was always associated with crime. If someone saw you going into the legal service, the perception was, “What have you done?”’ says Esset.

‘We actually had to sit down with people and list our services and ask follow-up questions to see what other problems people might have. This allowed them to build trust and improve understanding of what we could do for people,’ explains Katia.

Building trust is critical

Trust, they discovered was critical to the legal service’s ability to successfully engage and better meet client need. Key to that was meeting people where they live, explains Sabrina Adem, Legal Education and Community Development Officer. ‘It's important to understand how these estates function. Many people do not leave outside of visiting family. That's where we need to step in and actually meet people where they're at, go to their estates.’

Relationship building with the community is key, adds Erin Lockington, Social Worker. ‘When we first surveyed the community, there was a lot of stigma attached with the legal service. There was a sense of, they're not really going to help us,’ she explains.  

Establishing trust lay at the heart of significant change in the types of matters Moonee Valley Legal Service helped with. This included opening up conversations about family violence in safe settings. Legal concierges helped to first forge a bridge, then support those in need to access assistance. For one resident, when she got to know the faces at the legal service and felt it was culturally safe, she was able to disclose family violence.  

Unfortunately, funding for the Legal Concierge program ended in June 2023 and the team of nine was reduced to two. As a result, the service had limited resources for the community development team to continue to invest in much needed connections. ‘Those community relationships need to be ongoing. And when it stops, it's hard to pick that back up,’ explains Katia.

Recently the service obtained funding from the Victorian Legal Service Board to rebuild the program in a slightly different guise for the next 18 months. The program will have a community lead and two legal concierges, enabling them to rebuild pathways between community and assistance services, explains Brett Morton, Manager of Moonee Valley Legal Service. The program will be supported by two Practical Legal Training positions.

The Legal Concierge Program is seen as a critical access to justice pathway for housing estate residents.  

‘The approach before was that there were no legal issues if people weren't coming. But once we had the Legal Concierge program, we found all these barriers that we didn't know existed.’ - Brett Morton, Manager of Moonee Valley Legal Service

The VLF’s PULS Report 1 found that where legal need goes unmet, there is no access to justice. For more findings from the PULS report, visit the PULS website.

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