Cybele Koning is the CEO of Caxton Legal Centre, a community legal centre which has been operating for more than 40 years, and provides legal assistance and social work supports to thousands of vulnerable Queenslanders.
As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to unfold, Caxton Legal Centre is bracing for a rise in cases relating to consumer credit and debt and financial elder abuse this year.
“At the start of the pandemic we saw an immediate increase in demand for assistance with employment law, family law and domestic violence issues. There was a decline in people seeking help with other types of legal issues because they were focused on staying safe in their homes and in some cases because federal payments kicked in,” CEO Cybele Koning said.
“What we anticipate seeing is a huge increase in demand for consumer credit and debt advice because people have had to rely more on credit arrangements to buy essential products. Also, we can only imagine the online consumer scams that have exploded during Covid.
“A significant number of people have also been moving back home during the pandemic, and we know that social isolation mixed with financial pressures within intergenerational living arrangements creates the perfect storm for financial elder abuse, so that’s another thing we expect to see an increase in this year.”
When the pandemic first hit, the team at Caxton had to adapt quickly to support their clients as court programs were shut down and visits to hospitals, aged care facilities and prisons were halted.
“We all went home and ramped up the phone advices in areas of law which were most hard struck – employment, family law and domestic violence,” Cybele said.
“But it was a real challenge to overcome some of the barriers we have with vulnerable clients.
“42 per cent of the clients we represent have a disability and face-to-face services is what we’ve always offered, so it has been a challenge to overcome those barriers to accessing our services during Covid.”
The centre fields more than 35,000 calls each year and provides upwards of 7,000 services – by phone, videoconference, email and in person.
“How we have had to deliver our services has changed often enough during the year that staff are extremely flexible about working at home, at the office, and using technology to continue their work,” Cybele said.
“One of the pandemic’s most negative impacts on our services was to our evening advice clinics which run four nights per week and are delivered by approximately 200 rostered volunteer lawyers and law students. These had to be discontinued and it was a struggle for our staff to meet the first wave of demand for assistance without our volunteers.
“Later in the year we were awarded some temporary funding to hire two lawyers to meet the demand for domestic and family violence assistance and we fill those appointments easily each week. Also, we were able to engage with a small group of volunteers to assist with the overflow of demand,” Cybele said.
This year the Caxton team is re-engaging with their group of 200 volunteer lawyers and legal students.
“We rely a lot on our volunteers to help us deliver our programs,” Cybele said.
“We are also trying to accommodate remote volunteering as many of the lawyers who volunteer with us are now working from home instead of the office.”
Cybele says one silver lining of the pandemic has been a shift in how the courts have embraced technology.
“We’re noticing some innovation out of the courts and more people are starting to say yes to more technology-driven solutions,” Cybele said.
Caxton Legal Centre is also working on two key projects in addition to the changing demands due to Covid, including a Triage and Intake project to increase accessibility for vulnerable clients and Project Impact, focused on developing a framework for evaluating the outcomes of Caxton’s programs.
“We want to make sure that our services are accessible to our target clients – those who experience intersecting disadvantage,” Cybele said.
“And from what those clients tell us, we do good things to achieve human rights outcomes for them but we don’t have a framework for measuring and communicating that, so our new tools will allow us to evaluate what we have achieved and improve how we deliver services.”