LAWYER Jessica McCartney goes to work each day knowing not only is she helping seek justice for her clients, but she is also making a huge difference to their health and wellbeing.
Jessica is part of an innovative pilot project in Bendigo recognising that the medical and legal issues affecting vulnerable people are often inter-twined, and a co-ordinated approach from both professions can produce positive results.
Under the Health Justice Partnership, she works for the Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre, but spends three days a week at Bendigo Community Health Services’ Kangaroo Flat site meeting clients referred to her by doctors and other allied health workers there.
“The model is fantastic and there’s been a lot of evidence to show the benefits of health workers working with legal practitioners on the outcomes for clients,” Jessica says.
“Studies show that when clients are worried about their legal issues, it affects their overall health. And I have definitely seen in my time here how resolving the legal issues can really have an impact on reducing their anxiety levels.
“I had a client who was severely stressed and very anxious when I first saw him, but through resolving his legal issues, this helped reduce his anxiety – which in turn helps the health workers and counsellors dealing with the clients as well.”
Much of Jessica’s work involves advocating for BCHS clients with legal issues like family law or child custody disputes, child protection, family violence, and cases related to tenancy, infringements (like speeding fines), consumer law, credit and debt, and some crime.
“Often clients with mental health issues rack up many infringements and then have the sheriff knocking at the door chasing them. We can get involved there.
“I have one client with a lot of credit cards so I’m questioning why they were issued in the first place. Even so, the client doesn’t have the capacity to pay, so I’m trying to negotiate to have the debt waived.”
Jessica says some clients come to the health centre not even recognising they need legal advice or simply not knowing who to turn to.
Under the Health Justice Partnership, the service is free, confidential and easy to access.
“A client may go to see their doctor, but if they are referred to a legal service, they may be unlikely to go home then off to see another service.
“This project creates a multidisciplinary environment. I’ve had health workers identify a client’s legal issue then come and knock on my door to discuss and refer to me.
“I can do a quick conflict of interest check then see the client there and then, or they can make an appointment to see me when they are next in to see their health worker.
“Early intervention is a key with any legal issue. If we can get in early, we have more power to negotiate and resolve an issue. If it’s progressed, it can be harder to get a good resolution.
“So the point of me being located here is that clients can easily access us – they go to their doctor and then come down the hall to this office and see me.”
Jessica’s job involves more than pure legal representation.
“I consult with health workers and provide secondary consultations,” she says. “If they don’t want to refer a client but just want some information on a situation, they can pop their head in the door and I can give that.
“We do professional development sessions for workers as well. I recently did one on child protection and followed with one on family law and child safety.
“I also worked with BCHS to present to the Karen community on basic Australian law, using an interpreter. If health workers identify a group in the community that needs legal education about a topic, such as wills or power of attorney, we can provide that.”
The local Health Justice Partnership is based on successful international models and is one of a growing number of similar programs across Australia.
BCHS senior manager, children, youth and families Andie West says while the Bendigo pilot is due to end in October, she is extremely keen to see it continue long-term.
“Absolutely – the benefit to both staff and clients has been enormous,” Andie says.
An evaluation report last year confirmed the program was having a positive impact on BCHS clients who used the legal service, lowering their stress levels and improving their lives.
Jessica says the partnership captures many people who might otherwise go unaided legally.
“I had a client referred to me who was struggling making payments towards a contract,” she says. “I soon realised it involved breaches of Australian consumer law, including unfair tactics and coercion.
“She came to me originally to change the payments she was making, but she shouldn’t have had to make any more payments because that contract was so unfair.
“They ended up waiving thousands of dollars because I threatened to go the ombudsman.
“People often have no idea of their rights or that there is help available for them. If a health worker hadn’t identified an issue, she probably wouldn’t have ever come to our service.”
Jessica grew up in Daylesford and spent more than four years working at the Gippsland Community Legal Service before moving to Bendigo to take up this role last September.
She volunteered with Victorian Legal Aid and the Footscray Community Legal Centre while studying law and is devoted to helping those who need it most.
“I’ve always been in the community legal sector and my passion is to help the vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community.
“Maybe that comes from being a country girl at heart. I’ve never wanted to work in a big corporate law firm – it’s in my nature that I always wanted to do good for the community.
“Particularly, it is about everyone having equal rights to justice.
“There is so much disadvantage out there and so many people who need assistance.
“At the end of the day, it is very rewarding to see the change you can make in someone’s life and that’s why I love my job. Helping people when they feel like they have nowhere else to turn makes it all worthwhile for me.”