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Springvale Legal Service: Living in the seventies


Cite as: August 2015 89 (8) LIJ, p.22

A new book celebrates the heady days of the groundbreaking Springvale Legal Service. 

Springvale Legal Service, Australia’s first community legal centre (CLC), has had its history penned for a book that looks back at Melbourne in the turbulent 1970s.

It has been written by Dr Simon Smith, a legal historian currently working on the 175th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Victoria, who was also one of the founders and later employees of the pioneering service. His contribution, “Springvale Legal Service: the Coming of the Community Legal Centres Movement” is one of 16 chapters in Breaking Out. Community radio, gay liberation, student politics, the anti-uranium movement and feminist consciousness-raising in the suburbs are among other topics covered.

Launched this month by former Springvale Legal Service staffer (before he defected to the Fitzroy equivalent), Jon Faine, the social history was edited by retired Monash University historian Susan Blackburn.

“It’s almost 45 years old, it’s an important history,” Dr Smith said.

The Springvale service opened its doors in an environment of social activism following a period of parochialism for the Victorian legal system, with no widely accessible system of legal aid. There were various schemes, including the LIV/Vic Bar’s Legal Aid Committee, which paid lawyers to help eligible clients, but none provided general advice and information, enabled self-help or promoted law reform.

In 1971, about 30 Monash University law students, including Dr Smith, became engaged with making the law more accessible and getting practical experience. The result was the Monash University Legal Referral Service, which set up shop at the Russell Street office of the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in the CBD.

The major placement for the referral service was Springvale. Already multicultural, the mix deepened with the arrival of large numbers of new immigrants from South Vietnam, North Africa and South America. This diversity gave rise to demand for legal information and advice on everything from deed polls to neighbour disputes.One dispute that famously hit the headlines involved the backyard barbecue of a dog and the ensuing melee.

The referral service was at 5 Osborne Avenue, Springvale. “Erindale” was a 100-year-old farmhouse also housing other agencies. The law students had the use of the lounge room and one bedroom, which was shared with other agencies, to do interviews. The kitchen doubled as a waiting room – and if you waited, you would be seen.

Demand increased – so much so, the service was relaunched on 27 February 1973 with volunteer lawyers as well as law students, more night sessions and a new name – Springvale Free Legal Service. About 50 law students were involved – Chief Justice Marilyn Warren, State Coroner Ian Gray, ASIC chairman Tony D’Aloisio and one-time Victorian Law Reform Commissioner Professor Neil Rees among them. Although generally supported by the LIV, there were some initial misgivings about loss of work by the profession but eventually it embraced the concept.

By this time, Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister and major federal funding of legal aid had begun. The Australian Legal Aid Office was established, eventually becoming Victoria Legal Aid (VLA), and other legal services started appearing – St Kilda, Nunawading, Fitzroy, West Heidelberg.

The core business at Springvale Legal Service was motor vehicle accidents [25 per cent]. Out of that work came the “Haven’t got a cracker” letter for uninsured clients being sued for property damage recovery, which became legendary among insurance companies. Family law matters represented 20 per cent of the case load – “it was almost like nobody was happily married” – and minor crime.

Clinical legal education started in 1975 – a program Dr Smith co-ordinated for 10 years from 1978. He had a second-hand wet photocopier, old electric typewriter and a former loungeroom at his disposal.

“It was the best job I ever had. It was at the start of a movement and we built it. You kept young with the students and you contributed to policy debate through advocacy, you made a difference, you saw change . . . and I didn’t have to wear a tie,” Dr Smith said.

By 2015, more than 4000 Monash law students have been through the program, creating, as Dr Smith points out, goodwill towards legal centres and volunteering generally.

“Final fifth-year students would come in petrified. They’d never seen a client before. But under relaxed professional supervision, that experience would stay with them for the rest of their lives. The goodwill generated was astounding; we could always call on the Monash network.”

By the end of the ’70s, it was clear CLCs, as they became known, were here to stay. Now, there are 50 around Victoria, 200 nationally. Twenty-five have clinical legal education programs, the largest at Springvale.

Springvale became the busiest CLC in the country, managing to survive the 1980s when lawyers flocked to high-paying jobs at mid-tier and large law firms. “It was just me at one stage,” Dr Smith recalls. It moved into a new custom-built building (with bulletproof glass in the windows) in 1989.

Springvale Legal Service’s credits include a test case in the High Court, starting duty lawyer services at Dandenong Magistrates Court and hospital, and publication of the pioneering and still bestselling Lawyers Practice Manual, which Dr Smith co-founded 30 years ago this month. It also pointed out uncomfortable truths such as the disparity between spending $50 million on a new High Court in Canberra while giving relatively little funding to CLCs.

“Springvale surfed the legal centre wave. It built the movement. It has always been the busiest, and it’s got the student support to help with the case load. No other organisation has that,” Dr Smith said.

“The 1970s at Springvale were exciting and fun. It had some really great people there. It was a very special opportunity to make a contribution. I would not have missed it for quids.”

Breaking Out is available in the LIV bookshop.

Carolyn Ford


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