Medico-legal projects have been proven to improve patient health outcomes in the United States. A joint program by Maurice Blackburn, the Alfred Hospital and the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University has brought a similar approach to Australia.
The initiative, known as the HeLP (Health Legal Partnership) Patient Legal Clinic, was launched in early 2014, and aims to provide free legal advice to patients undergoing treatment at the Alfred Hospital.
The project arose from the medico-legal partnerships that have been set up throughout the United States, where the experience has been that health outcomes can be improved if a patient’s legal issues can be addressed. The 2012 Legal Australia-Wide Survey into legal needs also found that legal concerns have a negative impact on health, suggesting the benefits could be replicated here. It makes sense that if a patient can ease the burden of their legal problems, they will be able to focus on their health and treatment.
Maurice Blackburn provides lawyers on a pro bono basis two days per week. Patients and their families are referred to the HeLP clinic by their social worker, doctor, nurse or any other health professional. The concerns could relate to any legal issue, as long as it is impacting on the patient’s health.
How can the HeLP program assist patients?
In the two years since the clinic's opening, Maurice Blackburn's lawyers have assisted 492 patients, with more than 30% of these patients needing assistance for more than one issue at a time. The main areas of assistance relate to end-of-life planning (such as Wills and power of attorney), superannuation, crime, family law, and property and housing issues.
The HeLP clinic has also assisted in the areas of family law, domestic violence, immigration, social security, infringements and discrimination. In fact, the only legal issues the clinic can’t help with are personal injury ones — TAC, WorkCover, medical negligence and the like — because the clinic is not supposed to be a source of work for the firm running it.
How the service operates
The clinic provides a referral service, which means that only preliminary legal advice is given. If further assistance is required, the patient is then referred to other public and private legal services that can provide ongoing support. Often the referral is to one of Melbourne’s many community legal centres, but sometimes people need to be referred to private firms, most of whom have been providing some level of free advice and assistance.
The focus has been on making ‘hot’ referrals, which means that the clinic calls the community legal centre or firm, gets preliminary advice and actually arranges the appointment. Patients are much more likely to follow up if this occurs, rather than if they're simply given a name and a telephone number to ring themselves.
Maurice Blackburn's involvement in this important service not only helps the patients, many of whom are suffering from terminal illnesses, but it also assists the hospital — patients who don't have legal problems hanging over their heads will ideally be more focussed and engaged patients. Access to free powers of attorney is also useful because it helps provide certainty for health professionals when communicating with the patient's family and friends.
Tom Ballantyne is a senior associate in Maurice Blackburn's Melbourne office and is one of the lawyers providing pro bono services at the HeLP Clinic.