New triage approach makes the difference

We visited our friends at Eastern Community Legal Centre recently and had a chat to senior lead Donna Askew, about the Centre’s enhanced intake and triage service model.

Clare Kennedy
Monday, July 17, 2023

'Enhanced intake approaches are not crazily new or innovative when you consider the approach of community service organisations. But what is innovative, or different, is that it’s being done within a legal framework,' says Donna Askew, senior lead, Director, Partnership and Community Engagement Eastern Community Legal Centre (ECLC)

Since 2015, Eastern Community Legal Centre has been building an enhanced intake and triage service model. They have invested in new ways of working to provide strengthened client intake, assessment and triage using a person-centred, holistic approach to enhance community access. The way they reach and help community members solve their legal problems has been transformed.  

‘The model seeks to better understand a person’s experience as a whole,' explains Donna. 'It's about understanding people's interrelated social and legal issues. And that is quite different to what we've ever done before.'  

One important feature of the new model is the client advocate role, a community service professional who helps those facing barriers to access benefit from the centre’s assistance. This article explores the role of the client advocate and how it has evolved, and the difference made to the client’s legal journey. But first, what triggered the change to more traditional approaches to public legal assistance intake?

‘The service data showed us who we were seeing, but we knew when compared to the people living in our catchment, we weren't reaching those in most need.’

Reaching priority groups  

To be doing this work and to be successful, Donna explains, 'we needed to reach our diverse communities better. We needed to change something about the way we practiced, so that we were accessible, and removing barriers'.

'We needed to gain a more holistic understanding of the person trying to access the service, to better solve their legal issues.' Donna elaborates, ‘What was transformative was the approach adopted by the centre. It’s about seeing a person as a whole person, not just their legal issues. Being aware of the interrelated, intersectional factors that inhibit people’s access to services.’  

An important first step was to redesign triage and how intake staff engage with those contacting the centre, thinking about what information the centre needed to know to provide more accessible and responsive services. Part of that is looking at what and how client information is collected, and looking through a different lens, Donna explains. 'For example, asking where someone lives is an important question in terms of catchment (eligibility for services), but knowing they don't have a fixed address informs the service whether that person should be prioritised.'

Need for a skilled triage team

There were many lessons along the way as the triage model developed. The centre soon realised they needed a skilled intake team, that was resourced and supported to be able to engage with clients that present with complex need. The team needed to be able to elicit sensitive information in a professional way, however also needed to set boundaries to the level of information that was being shared and the depth of the intake conversation.  

To further build the intake team’s capacity, a client advocate role was created and implemented after successfully obtaining funding. What is different about the client advocate is that they have the skills to respond to the client’s needs and to implement strategies to make the centre’s services more accessible. For example, the advocate will help to identify client access needs, such as a better time for an appointment with a lawyer.

‘Initially, that was the role of the client advocate: building capacity. They were teaming up at the front desk to ''eavesdrop” and provide a more holistic response.  

'At that point, it was about reviewing and reflecting how the client advocate role could be further developed and refined to meet the service needs of the Centre.  The role evolved from there.’

Evaluation of that early model showed that building capacity and hiring the right skill set at that frontline was critical. This led to the creation of a dedicated AIRR team (Assessment, Intake, Response & Referral team), a diverse team of intake staff who engage with people using a trauma-informed, person-centred approach to assessment, intake and triage.

Implementing such an approach in practice had some further challenges as it became clear that many clients had complex, intersectional needs, and this was ‘a cohort that needed to be responded to respectfully, which takes time', Donna explains.  

The triage model evolves

In response, the Centre developed the capacity to provide a more intensive support program focused on mental health, substance use and homelessness. The program is designed so the client advocate works closely with the Centre’s community lawyers. This became known as the HEAL (Holistic, empowerment, advocacy and legal) program. The focus of the team was to respond to higher-needs clients using a more intensive, holistic and integrated approach.

The client advocate position has continued to evolve, adding a secondary consultation role. This involves the client advocate assisting the lawyer by, for example, recommending supports, such as health referrals, which may help prepare a client to deal effectively with their legal issues.  

Other practice-based support provided by the client advocate includes working with both the client and the lawyer to prepare for an appointment. Together the client advocate and community lawyer work together to support and empower a client to meet their needs.  

‘Lawyers can be great at building rapport. But it's the extra skills and strategies another professional has to support people who may be experiencing a number of challenges, that can really complement the suite of strategies that you have when working with people to respond to their legal needs.’

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