LEGAL Aid in Wagga is about to employ a fifth criminal lawyer to help cope with an increased workload, driven largely by a rise in the use of ice.
The expansion was revealed on Thursday during a visit to the Wagga office by Legal Aid NSW’s director of criminal law, Richard Funston.
The office’s senior criminal lawyer, Chris Murnane, said there had been a 20 per cent increase in Legal Aid’s criminal workload in Wagga, while in Albury the rise was closer to 50 per cent.
“I think it (ice) is a major cause of the increased workload,” Mr Murnane said.
Mr Funston added that alcohol continued to be a major issue confronting clients.
“It’s the old chestnut of alcohol abuse, as well,” Mr Funston said.
Mr Funston and Legal Aid NSW’s regional program manager, Leanne Robinson, were in Wagga to meet local staff, inspect progress on the Wagga courthouse redevelopment and discuss Legal Aid with magistrate Erin Kennedy.
Mr Murnane said alcohol was still the major problem for clients, but ice was fast catching up, especially in younger people.
“People are coming into the justice system for the first time in their mid 20s because of ice,” said Nicole Dwyer, solicitor in charge of the Wagga office.
Mr Funston said people who have not been in trouble with the law before are being charged with violent crimes committed while affected by ice.
Mr Murnane said while Wagga’s drug and alcohol detoxification and rehabilitation facilities were very good, there was a limited number of beds and they are not able to cater for all people who needed a bed.
Mr Funston said access to Legal Aid was fundamental to the state’s justice system.
“There are so many disadvantaged people who would not have legal advice or representation if it was not for Legal Aid,” Mr Funston said.
“Legal Aid provides a crime prevention function as well because we can explain exactly to clients what has happened in court, the effect of court orders and what can happen if those orders are breached,” Mr Funston said.
Legal Aid also provides advice and representation on civil and family law matters.
The Wagga Legal Aid office is the second-largest in regional NSW.
Mr Funston said state government funding was stable, but federal funding had taken a cut.
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