03 April 2014

Submission on Review of Australian DVA Advocacy & Welfare Training

Below is the submission I made today to the Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs on the Review of Advocacy and Welfare Training:  

The views expressed herein are offered strictly in my personal capacity.[1]  I do not speak for, and these views should not be attributed to, any other organisation or entity.    

Veterans’ organisations, or Ex-Service Organisations (ESO), have traditionally provided welfare, entitlement advice and advocacy to active and reserve Australian Defence Force members, veterans who have previously served and their families.  This has, for the most part, been achieved through volunteers who themselves have served in uniform. These volunteers have attended the Department of Veterans Affairs (“DVA”) National Training & Information Program (“TIP”) which has assisted in the development of their welfare and advocacy skills.[2] 

In January 2009 Professor David Dunt of the University of Melbourne noted, in his Review of Mental Health Care in the ADF and Transition through Discharge, that “[t]he future role for advocates has been however the basis for comment both in the Doogan Inquiry and the companion study to this report Independent study of Suicide in the Ex-Service Community – see Section 5 of that report. Both argue for the need for further training and accreditation of advocates to ensure that they are able to provide professional advice across all three veterans (sic) compensation acts including M[ilitary] R[ehabilitation] C[ompensation] A[ct] with its focus on rehabilitation as well as compensation.”  (Dunt Review at p. 127.)

The majority of post-Vietnam war era veterans (Timor, Iraq, and Afghanistan) are turning to law firms in handling their compensation cases rather than to ESOs.  Indeed, law firms themselves now have a vested, namely economic interest, in veterans’ law and have routinely been making submissions to the Australian Government with respect to reviews of legislation that affect veterans’ entitlement and compensation law.[3] Taking a look at every published decision out of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (“AAT”) going back to 1999 not one single published decision shows the Returned & Services League of Australia represented any veteran before that Tribunal.  What comes up often in published decisions is that the Vietnam Veterans Association but more often D’Arcys Solicitors, which were acquired by Slater & Gordon in 2007,[4] are representing veterans. 

On the other hand legal representations from law firms have drawbacks for a service member, veteran or family member because veterans’ compensation cases tend to be costly to the veteran or family member. Moreover, for the most part, law firms do not have a direct link with the array of welfare services, support networks and funds that a Veterans’ Organisation or ESO would be able to offer.  An example of this is that Slater & Gordon is not capable of offering the support network, welfare and funds that the RSL NSW DefenceCare or Legacy would be able to.  Conversely RSL NSW DefenceCare currently does not take cases beyond the VRB whereas Slater & Gordon Lawyers routinely appear before the AAT.     

The existing DVA-TIP training is insufficient and lacks formal accreditation.  It lacks sufficiency due to the fact that the training is not within an Australian Quality Training Framework (“AQTF”) with qualified instructors and assessments conducted from an accredited curriculum by a Registered Training Provider (“RTP”).[5]  There is no system of quality assurance. There is no system of compliance and auditing.  There is no system of registration where a veteran can verify the level of training an advocate may or may not have.  Simply put the training of volunteers under the existing DVA-TIP fails to meet basic contemporary standards. It is an antiquated system which needs to be completely overhauled to meet the needs of current serving ADF member and younger veterans.

Examples of an outdated DVA-TIP system is the failure to train welfare officers on contemporary and relevant issues such as Defence Housing problems[6]; pre-deployment,deployment and post-deployment assistance; transitioning out of the ADF into civilian life services; domestic violence[7] and veterans homelessness[8] which affect today’s young veteran.

Over the last decade Government statistics show that on average the DVA is 20 percent wrong on law in the initial determination of a case (misapplying the law, misinterpreting the law, failing to adhere to binding High Court/Federal Court precents).[9]  So 2 out of every 10 cases is wrong on the law and requires further review to the Veterans’ Review Board (“VRB”), AAT or the Federal Courts.  Thus having advocates who are taught within AQTF who advocate for veterans is key to having a nationwide system of competency standards to take on cases where the DVA falls short.

The undersigned was the architect of North Bondi RSL Sub-Branch’s welfare and entitlement program in where a track system was developed (Aged Veterans; Young Veterans; and Families) in which Vietnam generation and older veterans are supported by Vietnam generation entitlement advisors and welfare officers. Serving ADF members and younger veterans are supported by contemporary generation entitlement advisors and welfare officers. This model of track system has worked extremely well at North Bondi RSL Sub-Branch.  Active serving ADF personnel and young veterans have very different needs than that of aged veterans. Having Welfare Officers I trained in either one of the three tracks: Aged Veterans or Young Veterans or Families provides for better welfare services for that particular generation of veteran of family member.  Whereas Welfare Officers II have experience in Aged, Young Veterans and Family welfare needs. 

Recommendations


It is recommended that the DVA-TIP be completely overhauled so as to achieve excellence in training for the best possible delivery of welfare, entitlement advice and advocacy to serving members of the ADF, veterans and their families which includes:
  •  Implementation of an Australian Quality Training Framework (“AQTF”) system;
  •  Curriculum that is accredited by a Recognised Training Provider
  • Track system for Initial Welfare and Entitlement Officers to be in one of three tracks:  (1) Aged Veterans; or (2) Young Veterans; or (3) Families;
  • Auditing, Compliance and Annual Reporting to the Minister of Veterans’ Affairs;
  • Timeline with firm deadlines for a changeover to the AQTF system for current Veterans’ Organisations welfare officers, entitlement advisors and advocates;
  • Annually mandated “Continuing Advocacy and Welfare Education” program;[10]
  • Creation of a National Advocacy, Entitlement and Welfare Officers Register;[11] and
  • Adequate Government funding possibly through the reallocation of DVA Building Excellence in Support and Training (“BEST”) grant money.




[1] The undersigned is currently a Senior Advocate for North Bondi RSL Sub-Branch which has the largest number of serving Australian Defence Force members in the nation, and has previously served as Honorary Secretary of North Bondi RSL Sub-Branch from 2010 – 13, President from 2013 – 14 and is currently the Director of the Office of Welfare, Entitlements & Advocacy.

[2] The undersigned has attended all available DVA-TIP courses to include completing the highest level four advocacy course, in 2012, at the ANZSOG Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra.



[5] The only arguable exception to this are the qualified professors/teachers for the DVA-TIP National Tribunal Advocacy (level 4) course at the ANZSOG Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra. 
[6] Take this situation for example:  a serving ADF member is in the middle of a divorce because his spouse can no longer deal with repeated deployments and PTSD associated with deployments.  She and the children are in a house which is already being subsidised by the Government. The spouse wants the veterans belonging’s out of the house since divorce (footnote continues on next page) proceedings have been initiated.  Defence Housing refuses to provide storage of that veterans’ household items where the member is in the middle of divorce proceedings while being deployed on operations outside of Australia.  DVA-TIP provides no training on defence housing issues or the Defence Housing Manual so as to provide proper welfare assistance to the veteran. 

[7] DVA-TIP training is void of teaching welfare officers conflicts of interest and to bifurcate a veteran’s welfare and that of his spouse in which he was alleged to have committed domestic violence.  In example, a serving member or young veteran who was alleged to have committed domestic violence where he suffers PTSD and that is service connected would have different welfare needs than that of the welfare of his spouse.  The spouse may need an Apprehended Violence Order (“AVO”) whilst the veteran may need treatment for PTSD.  In such cases separate welfare officers should be assigned to each and the individual issues should be bifurcated to protect both the veteran’s and spouse’s interests. 
[8] The undersigned has witnessed an increase in veterans’ homelessness in his role as a Senior Advocate within the RSL.  This is consistent with a White Paper entitled The Road Home:  A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness (December 2008).  DVA-TIP does not teach welfare officers how to assist a veteran or what resources are available to a homeless veteran. 

[9] See generally Veterans’ Affairs Portfolio Annual Reports2001-2002 through 2012-2013.

[10] On the lines of Continue Legal Education as is required for solicitors and barristers.
[11] On the lines of the NSW Justice of the Peace register where a qualified and current Justice of the Peace could be located.  In a Register for Advocates, etc. their level of qualification should be made available on the register.

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