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Health-based legal service wins health equity award

Health-based legal service wins health equity award

By Karin Derkley

Access to Justice Guardianship Health 

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A service that uses an innovative model to reach socially isolated people at risk of elder abuse has won a VicHealth award for improving health equity.

Justice Connect's Seniors Law health justice partnership with community health service cohealth has provided more than 550 instances of legal help over the past three years to older people experiencing elder abuse or other legal issues associated with ageing.

Health workers at cohealth community health centres across the northern and western suburbs are trained to identify signs of legal stress or abuse in clients who come to see them for health issues. They refer suspected cases to Health Justice Partnership lawyer Faith Hawthorne, who triages the matters brought to her attention.

"The beauty of the model is that we can be flexible in the kind of legal help we provide," says Ms Hawthorne. "In some cases, that might mean a five-minute conversation to help with a power of attorney form for instance. In more complicated cases we can draw on our network of pro bono lawyers."

One such client is Li* who during physiotherapy treatment at cohealth following a stroke revealed that her husband of 35 years was pressuring her to access her superannuation savings to make repayments on the family home. The home was held in her husband's name even though Li had already made significant contributions to the mortgage.

"Li wanted to protect her home and to draw up a will and a power of attorney to make sure that her children would be involved if she lost capacity. But her husband was very controlling and wouldn't take her to see a lawyer," Ms Hawthorne says.

Ms Hawthorne was able to get instructions from Li during one of her appointments, and brought in pro bono lawyers from Maddocks to help her prepare her will and advise her on protecting her share of the family home.

"She wouldn't have been able to get any legal help if it wasn't for this service," Ms Hawthorne says.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter says the Justice Connect cohealth partnership is a successful model for providing legal support for elderly people at risk of abuse and family violence - particularly those from disadvantaged communities.

"The project achieved fantastic results with an increased number of people referred to pro-bono legal support," she says. "By partnering with a health agency, Justice Connect was better able to reach this at-risk audience and the project was effective both as an intervention and in preventing further abuse and family violence."

The Seniors Law Health Justice Partnership was initially granted three years of funding by the Victorian Legal Services Board and is hoping for ongoing funding to support the service long term.

*Not her real name


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