Interdisciplinary Collaborations – how legal and social services are working together

Jennifer Donovan1

1 University of Melbourne, 161 Barry Street, Carlton, Victoria, 3053,

Interdisciplinary collaborations between legal and social services, outside the court setting, have emerged as a growing framework for assisting clients with high degrees of disadvantage, vulnerability and complexity.  While some individual programs have been working this way for well over twenty-five years, as a more recent phenomenon these programs can now be found spreading across Australia, focusing on a wide variety of social and legal issues.

This paper is a presentation of research currently mapping the nature of these collaborations in Australia and exploring the influence collaborating professions are having on each other’s practice.  While legal and social service professions in these programs would seem to have a natural synergy focused on the needs of shared clients, research examining which professions are involved, how they collaborate and the practice being delivered within programs, remains limited.

The research presented is a mixed methods project using online surveys and semi-structured interviews to explore these programs and the experiences of staff within them. Preliminary results suggest there are a diverse range of collaborative programs currently on offer including those in both public and private organisations, those located in human service and legal settings, and those tackling areas from migration to mental health, family separation and domestic violence.  Preliminary results also suggest that the different professions are having different experiences of collaboration, with legal staff more likely to regard the experience positively and as having a clear influence on their practice, while social service staff are more likely to have mixed experiences and view their practice as less changed by the collaboration.


Jennifer is a lawyer and social worker, and is now undertaking her PhD with the Department of Social Work at the University of Melbourne.  Jennifer’s areas of research interest include collaborations between the social service and legal sectors, the roles played by social workers in therapeutic jurisprudence and the influence of legal frameworks on social work practice. She also teaches in department’s Law & Ethics, Program Evaluation and Social Policy courses.

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