The government-funded legal aid agency in New South Wales has been accused of racism and discrimination by a number of its own staff.
- Lawyers Sarah Ibrahim, Jayne Christian and Tendayi Chivunga say they faced racism while working at Legal Aid NSW
- An anonymous survey of Legal Aid NSW staff detailed more than 50 incidents of racism last year
- The Acting CEO of Legal Aid NSW has emailed the organization’s Indigenous Staff Network and acknowledged discrimination within the organization
7.30 spoke to 20 current and former employees from Indigenous and culturally diverse backgrounds who said they felt racially discriminated against while working at legal aid.
Their main concern is that racism has had a significant impact on their mental health and career progression.
Over the past six years, at least 23 culturally diverse employees have left the organization, in what some have described as an “exodus”.
Egyptian-born lawyer Sarah Ibrahim, who has worked for legal aid for more than a decade, has decided to report her employer, saying the organization poses a serious risk to racial minorities.
“I don’t know all the marginalized and racialized people on legal aid, but all I know is that I’m not alone,” Ms Ibrahim said.
“My observation of racism in legal aid means that you are excluded at different times when you shouldn’t be, where you are neglected where you shouldn’t be, where you are seen as a problem when you shouldn’t be, or where you’re not seen as an authority in spaces where you should be.”
Ms Ibrahim recently complained to the NSW Ombudsman after repeatedly asking to discuss the issues internally with legal aid management.
The lawyer, who now runs her own law firm while working part-time for legal aid, wrote an email to the executive last year, saying: ‘I want to be heard on what has been experience working for legal aid, including direct and indirect racism over the decade.”
A meeting never took place.
After 7.30am contacted Legal Aid NSW about the story, Acting CEO Monique Hitter wrote an email to the organization’s Indigenous Staff Network acknowledging the discrimination within the organization that some members of the personnel have suffered and apologizing for the distress and injury.
“Too black for an all-white office team”
Last year, two Indigenous members of staff at the legal aid office in Newcastle filed formal complaints detailing allegations of racism.
One wrote that he was “racially marginalized”, considered a “bludger” and felt “in danger”.
The second member of staff, wife Darug Jayne Christian, spoke exclusively at 7.30am about her ordeal.
Ms Christian said in June last year she was deeply affected by a conversation with a member of staff about a decision not to hire an indigenous candidate for a position in the Newcastle office.
In her complaint, Ms Christian detailed how the staff member had described the Indigenous candidate as someone who speaks with a ‘twang’ and that her ‘skin color is her whole identity’.
Ms Christian also detailed in her complaint how staff at another legal aid office had called her Aboriginal peers ‘lazy’ and that they ‘took too long to walk around’.
The two complaints triggered a “cultural review” of the office and disciplinary action against Ms Christian’s colleague.
Despite the review’s 17 recommendations to improve inclusion, eight out of 12 Indigenous employees have since left the Newcastle office.
“The system sees you as a one-time fire that just needs to be quieted and put out.”
Ms. Christian is currently on 12 months sick leave from legal aid.
Legal Aid NSW said at 7.30am the review of the Newcastle office found most staff had not seen or experienced overtly racist or discriminatory behaviour.
They said they were taking steps to ensure the office was a safe and culturally inclusive place to work.
The lawyer felt “isolated, isolated”
A former legal aid lawyer who also worked at the Newcastle office told 7.30am she believed she had experienced racial discrimination while working at the organization in 2015.
Zimbabwe-born lawyer Tendayi Chivunga said she believed discrimination against dark-skinned staff was widespread.
“People who look like me will have a very hard time doing their job at legal aid. [They] will have a very hard time being accepted into this organization,” she said.
During her first year as a community lawyer, Ms Chivunga says a colleague started to exclude her.
She recalled an incident during a work meeting when the colleague told her to “fuck it” when the office team was posing for a photo.
She also said the co-worker constantly excluded her from meetings and slammed doors in her face.
“[I felt] isolated, separated and in that moment, inferior and hurt,” she said.
Ms Chivunga formally filed a complaint in March 2016 and listed 13 incidents which she said constituted misconduct.
Two months later, an internal investigation revealed that the colleague had not committed any misconduct at work.
She claims that the co-worker’s behavior then worsened.
Ms. Chivunga alleges that the colleague harassed her while she was having a drink in a bar one evening with a friend.
“He started abusing me quite viciously, to the point that staff had to call security and get him out of the place,” she said.
Ms Chivunga then applied for another position with legal aid, but the colleague she had complained against was on the jury and she did not get the job.
“I remember being interviewed in front of him and having to look him in the face with everything I knew and everything I had been through. I knew at that moment that I would never get this work. And I didn’t,” she said. said.
Ms. Chivunga has since set up her own law firm, but is contracted to handle legal aid cases as a private lawyer.
She is now embroiled in a number of disputes over her handling of some of these cases.
After 7.30pm Ms Chivunga’s allegations were referred to Legal Aid, the organization has limited the number of cases she can work on.
Legal Aid NSW said at 7.30am it does not tolerate discrimination, is treating the allegations seriously and is taking action.
He added that his aim was to make known his position against racism and the remedies available.
Racism in “the public square”
7.30 obtained an anonymous survey of Legal Aid NSW staff which detailed over 80 incidents of discrimination and over 50 incidents of racism last year.
More than half of all Indigenous employees said they had experienced discrimination or racism, but most felt complaining would make no difference.
Professor Chelsea Watego, who studies race and inequality, says it can be shocking for many people to hear about allegations of racism from an organization like Legal Aid, which focuses on social justice.
“Going to work in an institution that claims to stand up for the poor and the marginalized…it’s in those places where we find it most difficult because we believe in the idea of that institution,” she said.
The Queensland University of Technology researcher and author said many workplaces across the country were ill-equipped to deal with complaints of racism.
“I don’t encourage people to use institutional processes for racial discrimination, because usually the HR response is a public relations response.
“It’s about protecting the institution and defending its virtue and innocence, not centering the victim and honoring them and dealing with what happened to them.”
Like the lawyers who spoke at 7.30am, Professor Watego said many employees were often forced to voice their concerns outside of the workplace.
“Bringing this out in the open gives victims something more than the internal process, which insists that victims remain silent,” she said.
“What we find in people who speak out against racism, often they don’t want reward for their suffering. They want change.”
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