June 4, 2023


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Three lawyers speak out with allegations of racism inside Legal Aid

6 min read


The government-funded Legal Aid agency in NSW has been accused of racism and discrimination by a number of its own employees.  

7.30 has spoken to 20 current and former employees from Indigenous and culturally diverse backgrounds who said they had felt racially targeted while working at Legal Aid.

Their main concern is that racism has had a significant impact on their mental health and their career progression. 

Over the past six years at least 23 culturally diverse staff have left the organisation, in what some have described as an “exodus”.

Egyptian-born lawyer Sarah Ibrahim, who has worked for Legal Aid for over a decade, has decided to blow the whistle on her employer, saying the organisation poses a serious risk for racial minorities. 

“I don’t know every marginalised, racialised person in Legal Aid, but all I know is that I’m not alone,” Ms Ibrahim said. 

“My observation of racism in Legal Aid means you are excluded at different points in time where you shouldn’t be, where you’re overlooked where you shouldn’t be, where you’re 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 took her complaint to the NSW Ombudsman after repeatedly requesting to discuss the problems internally with Legal Aid’s executive.

The lawyer, who now runs her own legal firm while working for Legal Aid part-time, wrote an email to the executive last year, saying: “I want to be heard on what the experience of working at Legal Aid has been like, including direct and indirect racism over the decade.”

A meeting never took place. 

After 7.30 contacted Legal Aid NSW about this story, acting CEO Monique Hitter wrote an email to the organisation’s Aboriginal Staff Network acknowledging discrimination within the organisation some staff have experienced, and apologising for the distress and hurt.

‘Too black for an all-white office team’

A woman wearing a black jacket over a pink top
Lawyer Jayne Christian is currently on sick leave from Legal Aid after complaining about racism.(ABC News: Tom Hancock)

Last year, two Aboriginal staff members from Legal Aid’s Newcastle office lodged official complaints detailing allegations of racism. 

One of them wrote about being “racially marginalised”, being viewed as a “bludger” and feeling “unsafe”. 

The second staff member, Darug woman Jayne Christian, spoke exclusively to 7.30 about her ordeal. 

Ms Christian said that in June last year she was deeply affected by a conversation with a staff member about a decision not to hire an Indigenous candidate for a role 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 colour is her whole identity”. 

Ms Christian also detailed in her complaint how staff at another Legal Aid office had referred to Indigenous peers as “lazy” and that they “take too long on walkabout”.

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 enhance inclusion, eight out of 12 Aboriginal employees have since left the Newcastle office. 

“The system views you as a spot fire that just needs to be pacified and put out.”

Ms Christian is currently on 12 months of leave from Legal Aid. 

Legal Aid NSW told 7.30 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 workplace.

Lawyer felt ‘isolated, segregated’

A woman wearing a blue shirt stands with her arms crossed.
Lawyer Tendayi Chivunga says “people who look like me will find it very difficult to do their jobs at Legal Aid”.(ABC News: Tom Hancock)

A former Legal Aid solicitor who also worked at the Newcastle office told 7.30 she believes she was racially targeted while working in the organisation in 2015. 

Zimbabwe-born solicitor Tendayi Chivunga said she believes discrimination against dark-skinned staff is widespread. 

“People who look like me will find it very difficult to do their jobs at Legal Aid. [They] will find it very difficult to be accepted in that organisation,” she said. 

Within her first year in the job as an outreach solicitor, Ms Chivunga says a colleague began excluding her.

She recalled an incident at a work function when the colleague told her to “bugger off” when the office team was posing for a photograph.

She also said the colleague had been consistently excluding her from meetings, and slamming doors in her face. 

“[I felt] isolated, segregated and at that point in time, inferior and hurt,” she said.

Ms Chivunga officially complained in March 2016 and listed 13 incidents that in her view amounted to misconduct.

Two months later, an internal investigation found the colleague had not engaged in workplace misconduct.

She claims the colleague’s behaviour then escalated.

Ms Chivunga alleges the colleague harassed her while she was having drinks at a bar one evening with a friend. 

“He began to abuse me quite viciously, to the point where the staff had to call security and have him removed from the premises,” she said. 

Ms Chivunga later applied for another position within Legal Aid, but the colleague she had made a complaint about was on the judging panel and she did not get the job.

“I remember interviewing in front of him and having to look him in the face with everything that I knew and everything that I had been through. I knew at that point that I would never get that job. And I didn’t,” she said.

Ms Chivunga has since established her own legal practice but is contracted to take on Legal Aid cases as a private lawyer. 

She is now involved in a number of disputes over her handling of some of these cases.

After 7.30 put Ms Chivunga’s allegations to Legal Aid, the organisation limited the number of cases she can work on.

Legal Aid NSW told 7.30 that it does not tolerate discrimination, treats allegations seriously, and takes action.

It added its focus was on raising awareness of its stance against racism and available avenues for complaints.

Racism in ‘the public square’

A woman sits on a sofa
Professor Chelsea Watego says she doesn’t “encourage people to use institutional processes for racial discrimination, because typically the HR response is a PR response”.(Supplied: Chelsea Watego)

7.30 has obtained an anonymous survey of Legal Aid NSW staff which detailed more than 80 incidents of discrimination and more than 50 incidents of racism last year.

More than half of all Aboriginal staff reported experiencing discrimination or racism, but most felt complaining wouldn’t make a difference.

Professor Chelsea Watego, who studies race and inequality, says it can be shocking for many people to hear about allegations of racism in an organisation like Legal Aid, which is focused on social justice. 

“To go to work in an institution that claims to be defending the poor and the marginalised … it’s in those places where we find it most challenging because we believe in the idea of that institution,” she said.

The Queensland University of Technology scholar and author said many workplaces across the country were poorly equipped to deal with complaints of racism. 

“I don’t encourage people to use institutional processes for racial discrimination, because typically the HR response is a PR response.

“It’s protecting the institution and defending its virtue and its innocence, not centring the victim and honouring them and addressing what has happened to them.”

Like the lawyers who spoke to 7.30, Professor Watego said that many employees were often forced to air their concerns outside the workplace.

“Taking this to the public square offers victims something more than the internal process, which insists that victims stay silent,” she said.

“What we find with people who speak out against racism, oftentimes, they’re not wanting a reward for their suffering. They’re wanting change.”

Watch this story on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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