In 2015-2016, consumer advocates from 134 community organisations helped consumers lodge nearly 484 disputes with FOS. Just over half of these people were experiencing financial difficulty and in urgent need of assistance. We value the enormous contribution of consumer advocates across the country – here are just a few of their stories.
Prisoners' Legal Service Inc. (PLS) helps people in prison and their families with legal matters relating to their incarceration, such as parole or family visits. PLS obtained funding for a financial counselling service from FaHCSIA (now DSS) and Tukie Balanzategui filled the position at the commencement in 2010.
Tukie grew up in far north Queensland and moved to Brisbane after finishing a Bachelor of Arts. She had been working in wealth management for 10 years when she heard about the financial counselling position.
Tukie said, “Like many people in the community, I didn’t know anything about financial counselling before this. I became the sole financial counsellor at PLS and built the financial counselling service while studying the Diploma of Financial Counselling.
“My clients are people in prison or community based corrections and their family members. The service is delivered through outreach across the whole of Queensland. I help people with credit and debt problems, provide financial literacy education, and engage in law and policy reform and group advocacy.”
In her role at PLS, Tukie visits all 14 prisons in the state, providing services in person, by telephone or video link, or in writing. PLS has a free telephone advice line and an established referral network. Since starting seven years ago, Tukie has helped over 1200 individuals through casework and resolved over $2m in individual debt, owed to both government and commercial entities – through both internal and external dispute resolution. Tukie has also provided information to many thousands of people by delivering education workshops in the prisons, developing resources, and distributing newsletters and information broadsheets to the prisons.
PLS faces many barriers as it is difficult to obtain funding for people in prison, despite the fact that they are some of the most disadvantaged people in our communities. Some of the difficulties Tukie faces as a financial counsellor include making hardship arrangements with creditors, obtaining accurate information from prisoners and accessing prisoners in a timely manner.
ABS data for the March 2017 quarter shows that in Australia there are 40,577 persons in full-time custody and 67,296 persons in community based corrections on a daily basis. Queensland has the second highest prison population and the highest number of persons in community based corrections. Multiplying this by friends and family members affected by incarceration, it adds up to a significant portion of the population.
Tukie understands the revolving cycle of prison and poverty in Australia. “Generally, people who enter prison experience a combination of poverty, homelessness, poor literacy and numeracy, addiction and mental health issues”, she said. The financial counselling service aims to address financial issues and provide financial literacy education while a person is incarcerated, in an attempt to improve their chances of re-entering the community successfully.
The service also aims to minimise the impact of economic exclusion while providing a pathway to accessing services post-release, educating individuals about consumer behaviour and encouraging people to be proactive in resolving financial problems as they arise. “I find this approach is effective at reducing the rate of recidivism,” Tukie said.
There is no other community legal service in Australia that provides legal and financial counselling services to people in prison and Tukie is the only financial counsellor dedicated to assisting prisoners and their families.
“I feel my work is making a substantial difference to the lives of many people affected by incarceration. I am proud of the outcomes I have achieved and the positive pathways found by my clients in very difficult circumstances.”
Click here for more information about Prisoners’ Legal Service.
Lillian Pangallo became a financial counsellor at The Salvation Army’s Moneycare to realise her passion of helping people handle their financial affairs. Moneycare is a free and confidential service offered to anyone who is either experiencing financial hardship or who would like to learn about managing their finances more effectively. Having been a financial counsellor for five years, Lillian is eager to see more initiatives to promote financial literacy in the younger generation.
Lillian has a background in education, which is an essential skillset as she is now involved with several financial education projects within South West Sydney. “Recently, my colleague Lisa Ross and I facilitated a workshop at a conference held for Year 12 students by the University of Western Sydney. The conference was part of the Fast Forward Program which encourages high school students to understand the value of extending their knowledge and improving their education opportunities,” Lillian said.
Fast Forward reaches 3500 students from 64 high schools in Western Sydney, from Year 9 to Year 12. It aims to reach out to students before they reach an “academic crossroads”. “I think it’s important for young people to be educated early when it comes to juggling their finances,” Lillian explained. “They need to be prepared so they do not get overwhelmed when dealing with money and are armed with the tools necessary to overcome difficult situations if they arise.”
Lillian and Lisa shared tips on budgeting, how to make the most of your money, and the basics of credit cards and bank loans, during a workshop called “Basic Money Skills for the Future”. “The Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian shared a very encouraging message about the future generation, emphasising the role of education for the young,” she shared. “The students were engaged with the workshop and provided positive feedback, suggesting that the content was relevant and helpful.”
This is only the beginning, with Lillian hoping to run many more financial literacy programs within high schools. “This is only one of numerous community engagement projects, but the positivity that emerged from it has been a highlight for me. I hope that it becomes an opening for future discussions about financial literacy being included in the national curriculum for high schools.”
Born and raised in Delhi, Rachna Bowman came to Australia from India in 2001 for university. Now a working mother of two young children she holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Swinburne University, and came to financial counselling in 2011 after many years in retail banking. Completing her Diploma of Financial Counselling in 2012 Rachna couldn’t wait to sink her teeth into the work.
Rachna’s passion for financial counselling, in particular her desire to assist clients from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, saw her join the Financial Resilience Program at South East Community Links (SECL) in the southern region of Melbourne in 2014. Along with financial counselling, SECL delivers a wide range of services, including: emergency relief, casework, housing support, youth and family support services, resettlement services for refugees and asylum seekers, financial capability assistance and volunteer programs.
“I was really looking for an opportunity to use my bilingual skills, working with members of the community who struggle to access services because of their limited English.” Rachna said. The community SECL serves is among the most diverse in Victoria, with over 50 languages spoken in the City of Greater Dandenong alone.
Rachna is a multi-skilled financial counsellor, working alongside clients experiencing financial difficulty, problem gambling and financial abuse as a result of family violence. At the annual conference for the Victorian financial counselling sector last year, Rachna was extremely proud to support one of her long term clients, a survivor of family violence, to speak up about what happened to her. Sayema’s story was hard to hear, and extremely powerful for everyone present. Sayema was also the 2016 recipient of SECL’s ‘Change Maker’ award.
This award is presented by SECL to clients who contribute to positive change through personal advocacy about issues impacting the community. Sayema’s resilience to make changes in her own life following severe physical and financial abuse, along with finding her voice through telling her story, made her a worthy recipient.
Click here to watch a short video to hear about Sayema's interaction with SECL. Although unidentified, Rachna has a cameo in the clip.
Now in its eighth year at Caxton Legal Centre, the Consumer Law Advice Clinic offers students at the University of Queensland an opportunity to work alongside its experienced consumer lawyers on consumer credit-related files for vulnerable clients.
Amanda Hess, the current clinic supervisor, has been with the clinic even longer than it has been with Caxton, having been seconded in the mid-2000s from her then employer (Blakes) when the clinic was operated by the Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House (QPILCH).
Each semester the Consumer Law Advice Clinic takes in four to six students who are nearing the end of their law degree, giving them intensive training along with client work. Like Amanda, many students maintain a relationship with Caxton well after their clinical experience has finished, coming back as volunteers or taking on pro bono coordinator roles in firms after graduation.
While with the clinic, students help clients with a range of problems, from dealing with training providers signing up young people to unsuitable courses, through to working out whether the latest iteration of a particular business’s consumer lease product might be in breach of the law. They write letters and make calls, draft documents and help people lodge disputes with external dispute resolution schemes such as FOS. For particularly tricky cases, students can help prepare a brief to a barrister or a pro bono firm.
“For many participants it is an eye-opening experience seeing the human impact of business practice. It can be distressing work, but for those students who come to the clinic believing in an open marketplace and lower regulation, many leave with a deeper appreciation for the nuances of what that means for vulnerable consumers,” Amanda said.
The Consumer Advice Law Clinic may be small, but it is delivering big value –a real success story for partnerships between universities, community legal centres and the private sector.
Listening with empathy
Listening without judgment is probably the most under-rated skill that good lawyers possess, according to Paul Holmes. He says he learned that from the now retired Queensland Supreme Court Justice John Helman, for whom he worked as a judge’s associate more than 10 years ago.
Paul puts his listening skills to good use in his role as a senior lawyer at Legal Aid Queensland, where he helps vulnerable clients tackle their banking and finance and consumer law problems.
Sadly, a lot of people need help with these issues, especially those who have lost their job, ended their relationship, are seriously ill or simply struggling to survive financially. And Paul is one of very few publicly funded consumer lawyers in Queensland.
‘Often clients who come to us feel they haven’t been acknowledged or heard, and they simply want us to listen,’ he says. ‘Each of their stories is unique and important – only that person has lived it.’
His clients fall into three categories – people he equips to manage their own case, those who have lost trust in the system and need Legal Aid Queensland to run their case, and others for whom no legal avenue is open.
The end of the mining boom in western and northern Queensland has left many clients in the third category. These people have lost their job, often have large mortgages and can’t sell their houses – as property prices are collapsing.
‘Often we are their last hope but sometimes people just want to know they’ve done everything they possibly can,’ he says.
Paul’s role includes case work, advice and educating community workers and he is one of the original members of the FOS Consumer Liaison Group (CLG).
He engages with financial services providers and external dispute resolution services such as FOS, and aims to have sensible conversations about clients and their problems to prevent issues escalating.
‘I’m focused on working with the next person asking for help but also driving change in the process and law for people who don’t manage to get through the door,’ he says.
He has no doubt that his four years on the CLG hasbeen a sound investment in time. It has given him insights into the way FOS works, which has helped him solve problems for clients. It has also given him the opportunity to put client problems on the table early, which has helped FOS identify and address systemic issues.
Brenda Staggs was admitted as a lawyer on Friday the 13th, 2001 and as a result she considers this uncommon calendar quirk as lucky.
While studying law, Brenda worked as a senior claims officer with (then) CU Insurance, and then practiced insurance litigation, specialising in major and catastrophic claims. In 2009, she followed her passion for social justice and joined the Redfern Legal Centre, running the centre’s TAFE branch for six years. Following that, Brenda joined Legal Aid NSW, combining her passion for justice with her insurance knowledge.
Brenda is currently acting as Legal Aid’s disaster response co-ordinator and insurance specialist. Legal Aid NSW has a long history of providing client-centred legal information, advice and assistance to victims of natural disasters. They have a team of over 30 specially trained lawyers on standby to help people solve their problems after a disaster.
“We recently confirmed our ongoing commitment to be the central legal agency in the NSW government’s disaster response. This unique position of being able to assist large numbers of affected clients after a disaster allows us to identify systemic insurance issues. We work closely with industry members to resolve these issues as quickly as possible.”
The best part of her job, Brenda says, is helping vulnerable clients. “The clients we see in this area usually come from non-English speaking backgrounds, have physical or psychiatric disabilities, or live in rural or remote communities. Many are homeless and all are in extreme financial hardship. The outcomes that we help them achieve make a huge difference in their lives.”
Brenda is really excited about working with Legal Aid’s new Domestic Violence Unit on a project around economic abuse, which forms part of Legal Aid’s integrated approach to helping victims of domestic violence. Integration and innovation is an important part of working at Legal Aid. “When I have an idea here, the usual reply is ‘Go for it!’”.
Brenda is a member of FOS’s Consumer Liaison Group, and in her spare time she studies psychology and statistics.
Imagine this. Every day you help people in financial difficulty get back on top of their financial problems. You might help clients prioritise their debts, negotiate affordable payment plans, find ways to save money on household expenses or explain what debt collectors can and can’t do. Sometimes you might lodge a dispute with an ombudsman scheme like FOS. Your work keeps families together, the electricity connected and the rent paid. You are a financial counsellor.
Fiona Guthrie is the CEO of Financial Counselling Australia (FCA), the peak body. FCA is the national voice for the financial counselling profession, providing resources and support for financial counsellors and advocating for people who are financially vulnerable.
Fiona has recently relocated to Melbourne from Brisbane, and is enjoying all that Melbourne offers, including the footy, the food and the new FCA office.
FCA is part of a community hub with two organisations that share similar values and aims: the Consumer Action Law Centre and the Financial and Consumer Rights Council.
"It’s like living in a really productive share house – we’re still three separate entities, but there are lots of synergies in being under the same roof," Fiona said. "By pooling our resources we save money, share ideas and of course we also take it in turns to do the dishes. We welcome visitors, so let us know if you’d like to come and say hello."
Following the successful launch of their report last year on the impact of uncontrolled sports betting in Australia, FCA is turning its attention to the ongoing question of funding for financial counsellors. In the past few years, many financial counsellors have lost their jobs as a result of funding cuts by either State or Federal Governments.
FCA spends a great deal of time advocating to government for the retention of funding for financial counsellors. It is a time-consuming but necessary part of their role. If there is one thing that would make a difference to financial counselling, Fiona says, it is having stable and sustainable funding. "A better model would be to adopt the approach in the United Kingdom, which involves a small levy on financial services providers."
Some of FCA’s other priorities for 2016 include the launch of a new website targeted to people in financial difficulty, new online training modules for financial counsellors and research into the best way to assist people who have recently entered prison to address the financial issues that occur because of their incarceration.
For more information about Financial Counselling Australia, or to locate a financial counsellor in your area, visit www.financialcounsellingaustralia.org.au.
Answering the calls
A short-term telemarketing role in 2006 convinced then law student Alexandra Kelly that she had a knack of picking up verbal cues over the phone.
Now Alexandra uses this skill to help consumers who cannot afford legal or financial representation when they ring the Sydney-based Financial Rights Legal Centre, where she is co-principal solicitor.
She is one of about 20 lawyers and financial counsellors who answer calls to the centre’s Credit and Debt Hotline and national Insurance Law Service, providing information, advice and referrals. She also represents clients in court and tribunals and in disputes through Ombudsman services such as FOS.
Alexandra speaks to many distressed consumers who are angry with the situation in which they find themselves.
A problem which she says is reaching crisis point is the proliferation of financial difficulty businesses such as budgeting, credit repair and debt administration and consolidation services.
She says the service provided by these for-profit and largely unregulated businesses is generally poor.
"The more consumers use them, the more harm these businesses do," she says. "They prey on the most vulnerable of people who typically pay a lot of money to get in more financial trouble."
"People in financial distress need unconflicted advice. Genuine, free services like ours are run by people with professional standards and accreditation. And we aren’t here to make money; we’re here to work in the best interests of clients."
Alexandra joined the FOS Consumer Liaison Group in November 2013. She finds it a useful way of understanding how the FOS process works, so that she can inform clients.
"For example, it’s important for my clients to know that they can expect to speak to a case manager within seven days now," she says.
Being on the Consumer Liaison Group also gives Alexandra an opportunity to share client experience of FOS with senior management, and through FOS, advocate for consumers with the financial services industry.
"My goal in every phone call is to help people articulate and assert their legal rights, and to speak up for consumers who cannot speak for themselves," she says.
Vulnerable people in financial hardship are one of Legal Aid NSW’s priority client groups. Legal Aid NSW has many initiatives including the Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities, the Work & Development Order Service and the Mortgage Hardship Service. They also provide assistance for people in the event of natural disasters like bushfires and floods.
A recent initiative is the formation of the Financial Hardship Working Group (the FHWG).
The FHWG is collaboration between the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW and the Cooperative Legal Service Delivery (CLSD) Program at Legal Aid NSW.
The FHWG grew out of the recognition that some vulnerable groups face structural and practical barriers in accessing support services, including external dispute resolution. These groups include people in regional and remote NSW and clients from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds.
Membership of the FHWG is drawn from Legal Aid NSW, community legal centres, financial counsellors, LawAccess NSW and Ombudsman schemes. FOS Australia is an active participant in the FHWG.
The FHWG is working towards finding practical solutions to some of the issues facing vulnerable and disadvantaged people in NSW, with a focus on CALD, remote and Aboriginal communities, including:
- easier access and sign-up to the Do Not Call Register; and
- expanding the reach of external dispute resolution schemes through inter-agency collaboration.
The CLSD Program is a regionally based program run by Legal Aid NSW comprising 11 partnerships of legal and related non-legal services in regional and remote NSW. CLSD Program partnerships meet quarterly and collaborate on initiatives to address unmet and emerging legal needs of their constituent vulnerable client groups. CLSD Program participants generally include representatives from Legal Aid NSW, Community Legal Centres, the Aboriginal Legal Service, local courts, financial counsellors and tenancy, youth, domestic violence, disability and migrant services.
For more information about the FHWG, contact Jane Kenny, Grants and Legal Information Manager, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW on (02) 8227 3210 or Jenny Lovric at the CLSD Program, Legal Aid NSW, on (02) 9219 5102.
You can find more information on the CLSD Program at www.legalaid.nsw.gov.au/clsd
CentaCare is the official welfare service of the Catholic Church in Australia, and the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes covers the western 52 per cent of New South Wales.
Established in 1996, CentaCare Wilcannia-Forbes delivers vital programs and services in rural and remote locations in western NSW, including financial literacy education to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Lynda Edwards, Manager of the Manage Your Income, Manage Your Life program at CentaCare Wilcannia-Forbes, visited FOS Australia during NAIDOC week. Lynda spoke to FOS staff about the work she and the other Manage Your Income teams are doing with CentaCare Wilcannia-Forbes, especially in assisting people in financial hardship. She also spoke about the importance of cultural awareness and cultural competency.
The Manage Your Income Program aims to increase the financial literacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, empowering them to make informed choices about their finances. This has a positive effect on individuals, families, and ultimately, the community as a whole.
“CentaCare Wilcannia-Forbes has always been proactive about investing in the communities it services,” Lynda said.
Part of the effort organisations like FOS can make to bridge the gap should be to collaborate with service providers on the ground in rural and remote locations. This can help ensure dispute resolution is accessible to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consumers.
“In terms of truly building community capacity, CentaCare Wilcannia-Forbes always tries to engage team members locally. Activities are delivered by local people that already have a strong connection to their community, meaning they can hit the ground running, as they already have a great rapport with the community. It also means that the professional capacity of the community is strengthened.”
Lynda also heads up the Steering Group that coordinates a national forum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander financial counsellors and financial capability workers. From its beginnings in 2006, Lynda has seen the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers grow and strengthen in the financial literacy space.
The ATSI Forum met in Canberra earlier this year, inviting representatives from external dispute resolution schemes to share in a conversation about the issues experienced by Indigenous consumers and the cultural barriers to making complaints.
Christine Raymond has been a financial counsellor with Uniting Communities for over seven years. Based at Christies Beach, approximately 30 minutes south of Adelaide, she works three days a week as a general financial counsellor, and one day a week at the Consumer Credit Law Centre South Australia (CCLCSA).
The CCLCSA was formed in August 2014, the result of significant advocacy over several years to secure funding for the service. Given the benefits of similar centres in other states are readily apparent, Christine and others knew that it could greatly benefit the people of South Australia. The CCLCSA staff consists of two lawyers and three financial counsellors, and provides services in Adelaide, Medindie Gardens, Smithfield and Christies Beach. Although newly established, there is already significant demand for the service.
Christine’s clients present with a wide range of issues, and there are some emerging trends. “We are seeing relationship debt issues more often, including those related to domestic violence,” she says. “People at risk of losing their homes is always a common factor in financial hardship. We’re also seeing more people coming to us who have never known financial hardship issues before.”
As well as seeing clients, Christine helps deliver the Diploma of Community Services (Financial Counselling) in partnership with TAFE SA. She also hosts students participating in the placement requirement for the diploma.
Christine has been a FOS Consumer Liaison Group member since 2012.
Sandra Blake was born and raised on a sheep, wool and beef farm in north east Victoria and trained as a financial counsellor in Melbourne. She combines her skills and training, and knowledge of local farming issues working part-time as a financial counsellor at UnitingCare Wodonga, and part-time as a rural financial counsellor at Goulburn Murray Hume Agcare.
The people she sees in both roles need help understanding their financial position, although Sandra says this is an area of particular concern with farming clients, where debts can be much higher, combined with significant asset protection. In any given week Sandra may be helping people prepare budgets and cash flows, negotiating with lenders, including Farm Debt Mediation, untangling issues around succession planning and helping families identify the Centrelink benefits they are eligible for.
Particularly in her role as a rural financial counsellor Sandra helps people cut through financial jargon to better understand the viability of their agricultural businesses, whilst maintaining their passion for farming. A farm that is turning over millions of dollars may still not be viable, and being able to talk to farmers in their own terminology is key.
Each farming business is unique and needs a different solution depending on the type of farm; the Goulburn Valley, Ovens and Murray region in northern Victoria and Riverina in South West New South Wales is home to fruit and vegetables, dairy, beef, sheep, wool, grains and wine production. This is where Sandra’s background helps to bridge the gap between her clients and FOS.
“There’s definitely a learning curve involved for everyone, including myself”, Sandra says. “In a recent conversation with FOS I needed to talk about an issue a farmer was having with a loan for his Header – I began the conversation by explaining what a Header was!”
“Most rural financial counsellors have contact with FOS and appreciate the work they do”, Sandra says. “Awareness of external dispute resolution and how to get the most out of it is important.”