Legal aid for NSW workers comp recipients criticised

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Legal aid for NSW workers comp recipients criticised

The NSW Government has established a free legal service for sick and injured workers seeking compensation, but unions argue there is no guarantee claimants won’t face ‘significant financial hurdles’ if the process fails to address their grievances.

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The NSW Government has established a free legal service for sick and injured workers seeking compensation, but unions argue there is no guarantee claimants won’t face ‘significant financial hurdles’ if the process fails to address their grievances.

Minister for Finance and Services Greg Pearce said the Independent Legal Assistance and Review Service (ILARS) is designed to provide a free, independent and quick process to resolve disputes between claimants and insurers.

‘This will mean workers can have their matters reviewed without going through the stress of a full hearing before the Workers Compensation Commission (WCC) or the associated legal expenses,’ he said.

‘The costs of establishing the service will be met from the WorkCover Authority Fund, which meets the costs of WorkCover and the [WCC] and is funded by insurers and employers.’

‘Legal stakeholders and their associations have played a particularly constructive role through WorkCover’s legal stakeholder reference group in addressing the difficult questions of costs.’

‘[The] Government has acted to ensure that there will be no unnecessary financial burden on injured workers who have legitimate claims and to provide a workers’ compensation system that is efficient, fair and equitable.’

Key features
 
Pearce said the features of new service include: 
  • ‘A free legal review service within the WorkCover Independent Review Office (WIRO) — no legal expenses need be covered by the worker;
  • Reviews will be conducted by independent legal experts in the area of workers compensation;
  • Where the insurer does not agree with the opinion of that independent legal advice, workers may be provided with independent legal representation to pursue matters in the Workers Compensation Commission following a merit review.’
Pearce said the new service will be conducted by solicitors and barristers with a background in workers compensation, but who are independent of both WorkCover and WIRO (this may include current practitioners and former arbitrators within the WCC).

Pearce said that while injured workers will still be able to take their claim to the WCC ‘at their own expense’, ILARS offers ‘a much more direct and affordable avenue for injured workers to pursue their grievances’.

New arrangements begin 1 Oct
 
The new arrangements for costs and access to the ILARS will immediately take effect for new claims made on or after 1 October 2012.

The old costs arrangements will apply for claims made prior to 1 October, if proceedings are filed in the WCC before 1 January.

The new costs arrangements and access to ILARS for these older claims will commence on 1 January.

Pearce said the role and provision of legal services will be referred to the Law and Justice Committee of the Legislative Council for oversight and review.

‘No guarantee’
 
Meanwhile, Unions NSW argue ILARS is a ‘far from ideal’ option for claimants because workers who want to pursue their claims to the final stage will face ‘significant financial hurdles’ they didn't face under the old workers compensation system.

Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon said that employees who want to further pursue their claim to the WCC will have to ‘wear the full cost of it themselves’.

‘This new system represents a significant change to the NSW Government’s original position and has been achieved through vigorous lobbying and campaigning [by the NSW trade union movement],’ he said.

‘However, there is still no guarantee that sick and injured workers will get free legal representation if the new process fails to resolve their issue.’

Lennon said the newly reformed workers compensation system is ‘undoubtedly worse’ than the old system.

‘We would challenge the O’Farrell Government to guarantee that no one will be worse off under the current system,’ he said.

‘The reality is that they cannot meet that challenge because workers will be worse off.’
 
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