Alfred HELP Clinic: In conversation with Emily Hart and Kathryn Booth – Podcast Episode 20

In this podcast, Managing Partner Sally Nicholes is joined by Emily Hart and Kathryn Booth, both Principal Lawyers at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in Melbourne. This podcast focuses on the establishment and operation of The HeLP Clinic, the first of its kind in Australia, which provides legal triage to hospital patients and their families. Kathryn and Emily continue to lead the Alfred Hospital HeLP Clinic, which helps patients with various legal matters including family law, criminal law and wills and estate planning, to name just a few.

 

Sally:

Welcome everyone to the Nicholes Family Lawyers Podcast.  I’m Sally Nicholes, Managing Partner at Nicholes Family Lawyers and today I am speaking with Emily Hart and Kathryn Booth, both principal lawyers at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in Melbourne.  Kathryn is a personal injury accredited specialist, practising exclusively in medical negligence.  Kathryn established Maurice Blackburn Lawyers Medical Negligence Practice in Victoria in 1991 and led the largest national plaintiff medical negligence team in Australia until 2018 when she stepped down from the role.  She continues to practise solely in Medical Negligence at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers and remains a trusted expert in the medico-legal field.

Emily is also a personal injury accredited specialist with over 13 years’ experience, practising exclusively in medical negligence, particularly in obstetrics, coronial matters and mental health.  In alliance with the Monash University Michael Kirby Centre, Kathryn and Emily also lead the team of lawyers who established a pro bono legal clinic for patients at the Alfred Hospital.  The Health Clinic, the first of its kind in Australia, provides legal triage to hospital patients and their families.  Kathryn and Emily continue to lead the Alfred Hospital Health Clinic which helps patients with their legal matters, including family law, criminal law and Wills and Estates planning, to name just a few.  Welcome Kathryn and Emily, it is such a pleasure to have you on the podcast

Emily:

Thank you so much, we are excited to speak with you.

Kathryn:

Thank you Sally

Sally:

Now you have both worked at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers for many years now, which is a testament to the organisation.  How has Maurice Blackburn Lawyers’ philosophy as a firm inspired how you both practise?

Emily:

Well, I think access to justice is a core value at Maurice Blackburn; our entire business model is set up to focus on providing assistance to those who might be disadvantaged  or have difficulty in accessing the legal system.  So access to justice is really part of our everyday work, we help everyday Australians with compensation claims and we look at improving systems within our society, so both Kathryn and I focus on the health system in our legal work: how to improve patient safety, how to help improve training and resourcing to our healthcare workers.  So we really feel lucky as lawyers to be able to put this value into a very real focus down at the health care clinic at the Alfred Hospital, it’s a merge of our experience working within the health care system and putting clients as the primary focus.  So we always go in and ask: how can we help this person with their legal issue.  And I think, for us, at the Alfred, it really takes our lawyering back to basics, so we are assessing someone as a whole person, we are identifying how the law might be able to help them.  And for many of our patients at the Alfred Help clinic, it is more than one issue that is coming up for them at once while they are in the hospital.

Sally:

And what about you, Kathryn?  How does Maurice Blackburn really align with your levels, for me it has the most amazing sense of corporate social responsibility. I very much remember being at the launch, and Michael Kirby speaking about Maurice Blackburn and its incredible history of giving back, which I was blown away with, so ever since I have been a major fan. What is your inspiration there which has kept you there for so many years?

Kathryn:

Well, certainly, it is a long history, Maurice Blackburn himself set up the firm in 1919, so we have just had our hundredth year anniversary, so that was last year, obviously, our hundredth year which was very significant and Maurice Blackburn has always cared about the under-dog and helping people who may not be able to access justice because they don’t have the finances, always helping them to achieve justice and to realise that they are important.  So we have had, over the years, many interesting social justice cases, and obviously a lot of our lawyers do work in the community, a lot of pro bono work, so a substantial number of our lawyers are doing pro bono work, and always have been and anticipating important cases.  In 2012, I was approached by the Monash University Michael Kirby Centre to set up a health/legal partnership clinic at the Alfred Hospital.

At first I didn’t really know what to make of this new concept, but when I looked into it more, it was something that really interested us to be part of.  We really cannot take credit for the idea, that was Professor Bebe Loff and Dr Liz Bishop who work at the Michael Kirby Centre and they had been researching health/legal partnerships in the US and the UK for many years, and seen that there was perhaps an unmet need in Australia for such a clinic.  We were approached because of our interest in the interface between medicine and law.  So I should say, right at the outset, that although I am a medical negligence lawyer as is Em, this clinic has got nothing to do with medical negligence, because some of my friends think: so you’re a medical negligence lawyer and you are going out to the Alfred Hospital, how does that work!  No, it’s got nothing to do with medical negligence.

Sally:

It just means that you have an incredible industry knowledge so you can bring that and work really well

Kathryn:

Yes and an understanding of the medico/legal framework.  But we don’t do medical negligence cases at the Alfred, we do virtually everything but medical negligence cases and there is a couple of other areas we don’t do, but it is really more about everyday types of legal problems that really sick people have got while they are in hospital, they’ve got these problems that are overlaying in their mind and playing on their mind, and they need to sort these problems out so that they can get the best health outcome as well.

So they may be worrying about some criminal charges or a neighbourhood dispute or a superannuation disability-type problem, and it’s really affecting them, and the thinking is that to get the best health outcome: well, fix up some of those legal problems as well.

Sally:

I can imagine too, that if you have got a particular insight  into the needs of people who are critically ill, it is so important – and it can actually impact on the outcome – I know that one of the cases ….and we assist you in the discreet area of family law….that we have been working with people who are dying and actually finding out what happens to the children.  What interests me is that when I was doing some talk-back, a lady rang in and said that I’ve been told that because I am dying, my husband who has been incredibly violent to me will simply get the children, as if they were a piece of property, and by survivorship.  And because we have done so many of those cases and worked in the Alfred I could say quite confidently, well, that is not necessarily the case at all.  I was able to help her offline.  But it is such a discrete….  when people are very ill it is highly stressful and the way in which you navigate that legal problem can actually be quite different from the normal run-of-the-mill cases in that particular jurisdiction.

Kathryn:

Absolutely, and as you say, Sal, we have worked with Nicholes Family Lawyers from before we opened our doors down at the hospital to assist in family law matters.  And I mean you can understand when someone is incredibly unwell, they will have trouble focussing on their treatment when they are worried about who is looking after the kids at home, or what is going to happen to the kids if they are not able to look after them so it really is a bit of a no-brainer in terms of being able to allay some of that stress at the hospital, particularly for people who can’t physically leave, they can’t go in to see a lawyer, they can’t go and pick up documents that they have at home, they can’t go and find all the things they need when they are sitting in a hospital bed.  So that is what we are there for.

Sally:

And you have an awesome array of social workers there and you’ve obviously got great teamwork.  How has COVID impacted on working there at the moment?

Kathryn:

Yes, it has been a very interesting time, as I’m sure you can imagine.   Look, we have obviously had to make some changes and adapted our practices down at the hospital.  So we have tried to continue our service as much as possible remotely, so speaking to the patients by phone and by email, and obviously working with the wonderful social workers who are present at the hospital.  So it has been challenging, not being able to physically see people but it is also very important that we limit the number of people moving around the hospital. So it has also been really hard, we are trying to support our colleagues who are down at the Alfred dealing with the realities of this pandemic every day, so the social workers who in some circumstances might be the only person who can provide support to somebody whose family might not be allowed to visit because of COVID, and seeing the incredible work that the ED department and the ICU department and the respiratory department have put in, not just looking after people but preparing in case things do escalate with COVID.  It has been an incredibly humbling thing, I guess, to watch our colleagues who are still there every day, who turn up, some of our colleagues who were not able to see their own families, or their own kids, because they were in quarantine or in lockdown waiting on test results.  It’s an incredibly different circumstance from what we are used to down at the hospital

Sally:

As you were talking, I was getting goose-bumps because it has been an incredible era and I think those first couple of weeks and months, the whole world just turned upside-down and your saw the best and worst of people.  But particularly I can imagine at the Alfred, the absolute best which is really inspiring.  With the number of cases that you have actually had over the journey, do you know the figures of  how many people, do you know the numbers of people that the Alfred Health Clinic has been able to help?

Emily:

We are coming close to 1,500 which we should hit soon and it’s an incredible array of different types of matters as well, which I must say,  I think when Kate and I were in the initial discussions with the hospital and with Monash about setting the clinic up, I don’t think any of us could have predicted just how many different types of legal issues might come up. It has been absolutely fascinating from a professional perspective.

Sally:

And what do you think, Kate, what has been the most rewarding aspect of Alfred help for you?

Kathryn:

Well, I think undoubtedly being able to help sick people with their legal problems and get back to the grassroots practice of the law – bedside with a sick person – that’s why we all studied law, to do that sort of work and that has been very rewarding and in no greater place has it been rewarding than in some of the family law work that you have assisted us in, for people in the  ICU, very sick people, sorting out their custody issues, so that is very rewarding, and also, working with the social work team gave me a huge appreciation about the sort of work that the social work team do, and stepping outside of our own work environment and working in a different environment with a different group and that interaction between social work and lawyers has been very inspirational and then the big one for me is seeing the enjoyment and fulfilment of our young lawyers in the team at the Alfred, the young legal team that have been able to practise, they are not that young, some of them, just seeing all of the lawyers …

Sally:

Oh they are very young, Kathryn!

Kathryn:

Just to see the enjoyment they have in going back to basics and being out there, in a different environment and helping people in need – that is what young lawyers are looking for these days, they are not just looking for reward and recognition, they also want to be fulfilled in their jobs and so in a way it is a retention policy or a retention thing because the lawyers are staying with us because we are fulfilling that need in them to do good in the community.

Sally:

I totally relate to what you are saying.  You often look back as to why you went to law school and why you are here – I remember a really good friend of mine who is no longer with us, John Udorovic QC, said to me: “When you are at a stage when you can give back, you will know when it is, then give back and it feels good, and we have talked about it over the journey, and giving back actually raises the serotonin, being kind is a good thing, particularly during this time it is really important to do it and it makes you feel better, but with the younger lawyers, too, it’s a way of steering them in terms of value and compassion and empathy that you want to bring to every case and so working with people who are from a completely different social, economic and cultural background, which I can imagine at the Alfred, too and some of the other pro bono clinics where you contribute to, it is so important to throw young people…and I think the people who must be attracted to work for you, the fact that they want to work in these clinics means that they are the type of people who you want to employ anyway.   I think it is win/win as an employer to have that calibre of young person with you as well. I do think that some of the cases can be incredibly confronting for them, because sometimes they haven’t actually met someone who is dying before if they are young. Do you have to have a bit of a de-brief or assist some of the younger people who are working in the hospital?

Kathryn:

I think we have to be very mindful of that.  You only need to listen to the 6 o’clock news to realise that many of our worst accidents, the victims of those accidents, will go to the Alfred Hospital so we know ahead of time sometimes that our young lawyers might be going bedside to those patients. It is very confronting but we carefully pick the lawyers that work at the Alfred.  You need a certain personality, a bedside manner, you’ve never met this person before and you are going bedside straight up to a very sick person.  Emily has been fantastic at doing that and showing the others how to do that, how to build that rapport straight up with a sick person.

Sally:

It’s a wonderful skill, and they certainly don’t  teach you that at law school or they didn’t when I was there, having empathy towards a client, it’s a gift which is so important.

Emily:

It’s probably something which I never expected to develop in the way that it has when we first started the clinic. Part of the process of choosing the lawyers who will work in the clinic is about looking at, as Kate said, their personality, but also what they do day-to-day so in the area of law that we work in, we are always dealing with people who are unwell, that is the nature of the legal work that we do.  We have had lawyers come through the health clinic who are specialists in dust diseases so their day-to-day is dealing with people who are dying from asbestosis or who have horrific lifelong problems. There is an aspect, as you say Sal, the people who come to do this type of work already have an interest in that.  But the hospital is a whole new level.  A few years ago, we had this absolutely bizarre situation where there were four of us in the car and we were all lawyers who had been working at the clinic and we were on our way to the Christmas party with the social work team from the hospital.  As we were driving we hear a broadcast on the news about a very significant incident that had happened in Melbourne.  The whole car went silent because we were thinking, well there is no party happening tonight because our social workers are going to be at the hospital and we are going to be at the hospital and in fact that is exactly what happened,

It is very different, I think because by the time people come to see us in our normal practice, they have had a bit of distance and certainly that does not mean that they are not incredibly traumatised and damaged and struggling with those things, but if you see someone the day after something happens, it is very different.  And also some of those practicalities of being in a hospital such as having to wear a gown and a mask to do your bedside consult because somebody is immuno-compromised or somebody has full-body burns; that is a very different way of practising law.

Sally:

I’ll never forget the first consult that I did, and there was an element of joy to it because I felt that the young person that I attended had so much emotional intelligence and showed such a commitment to their young child and their whole focus was on that child’s  welfare, not on the fact that they were very young, twenty-three and dying.  I just found that they were so inspirational – they hadn’t had a significant secondary education but the humility, the insight – I thought what an amazingly-beautiful human being and all they wanted was to ensure that their child was actually taken care of by an appropriate family member and was quite a joyful person to spend time with. When I walked out, the tears did well up but what I found

is extraordinary amongst all of our colleagues is that anyone I have approached to act on a pro bono basis has – say a barrister at the Bar – it has been just an open door. I really love that about all of our colleagues, any one of the Alfred Health matters, when we have asked anyone for their assistance, the generosity is just terrific, so it is nice to be surrounded by such like-minded people in our profession and particularly when we are preparing for Law Week, and Access to Justice week.  I can’t imagine talking to two more appropriate people.  I know I was there when you were actually recognised by the Law Institute and I was there cheering.  It is really important to be recognised by your peers for what your contribution has been. It is such a delight to interview you both today. Is there anything else you would like to add for anyone who is listening who might be interested? It might be that family members who are listening today who have got critically ill people that they want to take care of? Any messages to people?

Emily:

One of the best things from our perspective since we started – as Kate said – she was approached in 2012 about this – and in that time the health/justice landscape in Australia has really exploded.  There are so many incredible health/justice projects like ours, they are not all exactly the same, but if someone does have a family member who is receiving medical treatment, it never hurts to ask whether there might be a similar type of program available so whether they are at the Alfred or a different hospital, it is always worth asking and the social workers are an untapped treasure-chest of information and support. I think it is always worth asking.  The other part of it is not to feel like those legal issues should be put under the bed because I will say I’ve been surprised at how many legal issues are actually pretty straightforward from our perspective.  The benefit of being a lawyer and walking into this stuff is that sometimes you say, it’s this one single thing that will unlock this whole thing.  For example, we get a lot of people who are in financial distress because they have been sick for a while, maybe they have had to stop work, maybe they have had to spend a lot of money on treatment, whatever it might be.  One of the most incredible things we have seen through the hospital is the transformative power of superannuation insurance and the number of people who get referred to us to ask us about early access to super, for example.  We are able to say: have you checked whether you have got any insurance.  The number of people who don’t even realise that they have insurance on their super.

We had this beautiful man who had been under incredible stress and it turned out that he had three separate superannuation funds, all of which had insurance, and he had over a million dollars in untapped insurance which he was able to access.  This changed his life; the financial stress disappeared and obviously his health issues didn’t but he had a lot more space to deal with them.

Sally:

Yes, it would be really rewarding.  Kathryn, is there anything you wanted to add for anyone listening?

Kathryn:

Well only that it really is an incredible experience for the lawyers who work out there. It is a real eye-opener going into the Alfred Hospital and seeing how big it is and just great experience in going into the wards and practising in a wide range of areas of law, or advising in a wide range because most lawyers these days specialise in a particular area of law back at their paid jobs, so it is a wonderful opportunity to practise a little more widely than just in your specialist area and for us, outside our core area of medical negligence which again I say has nothing to do with the work at the Alfred.

Emily:

And I’d like to add one more thing which is if there are any lawyers listening to this who are interested in the work that we do, we are always happy to hear from people.  We have had incredible support from the legal community – obviously, Sally, you were one of the very first and one of the most significant contributors in terms of the  family law support that you have brought to this project, but we are reliant and grateful for the support of any number of lawyers across Melbourne.  Sometimes it is just answering our questions over the phone, to make sure we are asking the right questions of a patient.  Sometimes it is taking a referral, sometimes it is giving us some advice. That makes this possible and it is also the part that the patient is not going to be able to access on their own, so if there are lawyers listening to this who think that sounds really interesting and you have got a spare half an hour a month that you would be willing to donate to us with some expertise, we are always happy to hear from them.

Sally:

Amazing and thank you very much; I know your time is really valuable but I think everyone will appreciate listening to this.  Very inspirational stuff and a pleasure to work with you two, let’s hope for another 1,500 more cases in maybe five years’ time.  When would be the 10-year anniversary of Alfred Health, do you think?

Emily:

So it will be in 2024.

Sally:

Great to talk to you both and keep safe and well. Lovely to see your faces.  Look forward to speaking with you soon.

Emily:

Same to you, Sally

 

Disclaimer: Nicholes Family Lawyers intends the information provided in this podcast as general information only, please contact Nicholes Family lawyers if you require specific information and advise in relation to any family law matter.

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