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Federation a loud voice for the disadvantaged

News

Cite as: December 2011 85(12) LIJ, p. 26

The Federation of Community Legal Centres successfully uses limited funds and resources to provide access to justice for those who need it most.
 

When Denis Nelthorpe hitched a ride on his first day of university and told the driver he was keen to become a lawyer to help the disadvantaged, the response was “that will change by the time you finish your degree”.

When he hitched a ride on his final day of university and said the same thing, a different bloke told him he was young and idealistic and his views would change after a few years in the profession.

They haven’t.

“The passion is undiminished,” the manager of both the Footscray and Wyndham Legal Services, who has worked in community legal centres (CLCs) for almost his entire 30-year career, said.

During that time he has represented low-income clients against landlords, debt collectors, insurance companies and banks and many of his victories have resulted in systemic solutions to what began as the collective problems of many individuals.

“If you see legal centres as a vehicle for the pursuit of justice for the broader community it can offer extraordinary opportunities,” Mr Nelthorpe told the LIJ.

Last year, his work to reform the way insurers and major lenders deal with debts owed by poor and disadvantaged consumers culminated in an innovative “bulk debt” negotiation project which saw six major institutions waive debts of $3.75 million. The project, which has stopped the collection of debts where it would be unethical to do so, has now been picked up by legal aid services nationally.

The head of the Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC), the peak body for CLCs in Victoria, Hugh de Kretser, said this was just one example of the sort of work coming out of Victoria’s network of CLCs.

The FCLC uses the client driven work of its 49 CLC members to inform its law reform and policy activities aimed at improving access to justice for the disadvantaged. CLC workers collaborate on common justice issues in law reform working groups that are supported by FCLC staff.

“CLC law reform work has contributed to important improvements to laws and practices in areas such as family violence, policing, sexual assault, credit and debt, refugee law and many more,” he said.

In 2009-10, the FCLC received about 1000 calls from the public seeking help and its website, which hosts and provides links to CLC websites and outlines ways to get legal help and find information, received more than 180,000 hits.

Mr de Kretser nominated the introduction of best practice family violence principles, coronial law reform to avoid preventable deaths, national consumer law improvements and the legal help provided to Black Saturday bushfire victims as among the FCLC’s more important contributions.

“Bushfire Legal Help was the legal system operating at its best,” he said. “It was a fantastic collaboration between CLCs, legal aid, the private profession and others.”

The FCLC has also focused on: ensuring that alternative dispute resolution does not disadvantage the vulnerable; legal rights for taxi drivers; improving access to justice for sexual assault victims with a cognitive impairment; and improving police accountability.

While there is no shortage of stimulating work and committed volunteers, low pay rates, political pressure and limited funding and resources are constant challenges.

In Victoria, CLCs receive about $18 million a year, administered by Victoria Legal Aid. About 60 per cent comes from the state government and 40 per cent from the federal government. The average funding per CLC in 2010–11 was $426, 856. Additional funding comes from other state and federal programs, local government, philanthropic groups and program funders such as the Legal Services Board and the Victoria Law Foundation, donations, pro bono support such as secondments from law firms and costs orders in litigation.

“While we have had some good increases from state governments in Victoria, the repeated government inquiries show demand is overwhelming and CLCs and legal aid are woefully underfunded to meet that demand,” Mr de Kretser said.

What is needed is a “seismic shift in funding from the federal government”, he told the LIJ.

“Our 10-year vision is that funding for access to justice is viewed by the public and politicians in the same way they view funding for health and education.”

Workforce challenges are looming with the implications of the equal pay case brought by the Australian Services Union at Fair Work Australia likely to further squeeze budgets.

“It is critical that if Fair Work Australia increases minimum pay rates for community sector workers – as we expect they will – that state and federal governments fund those pay rates properly or we will be forced to cut our services,” the FCLC chief said.

He said workforce development was the FCLC’s number one strategic priority over the next three years.

“What we can offer is really interesting work, which makes you feel good about helping people, so we have a competitive advantage in many respects, but when people have got mortgages and kids then pay becomes a significant barrier.”

A recent CLC census found 83 per cent of lawyers had salaries, not including super, tax concessions or other benefits, of $65,000 or less.

Limited resources have meant more collaborative work and stronger partnerships with groups such as the LIV – on initiatives such as the joint Smart Justice Project (see page 16), private firms offering pro bono services and Victoria Legal Aid, which has run many of the FCLC’s education initiatives.

It has also led to the development of innovative community legal education projects aimed at preventing legal problems.

“What we can’t do in CLCs and legal aid is sit in our office and expect the clients to come to us,” Mr de Kretser said. “We need to get out there in the community and promote awareness about legal issues and what happens if they are not resolved.

“Early intervention is the key to preventing legal costs, health issues and social problems from spiralling out of control so it is critical that we reach clients at the earliest possible stage.”

Passion not pay

Low pay and stretched resources did not deter applicants for the Fclc’s graduate law scheme this year.

Ninety-six final year students applied for two trainee positions offered by the FCLC this year.

FCLC head Hugh de Kretser said: “The response was extraordinary. It was the strongest talent pool I have seen in CLCs.”

He attributes this to a greater awareness of the role and work of CLCs – including the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Human Rights Law Centre and the Mental Health Legal Centre.

Mr de Kretser believes law students are more engaged in social justice and volunteering initiatives than they were a decade ago. Many volunteer with CLCs while at university.

“Under our program we get the trainees admitted, run them through their practical legal training course and pay for their admission fees and practising certificates,” he explained.

“They spend 12 months working at three different CLCs, including a general legal centre, a specialist centre and a rural and regional centre.”

Footscray and Wyndham Legal Services manager Denis Nelthorpe said he was inspired by the new generation of talented young lawyers, including current FCLC trainee Parvathi Suriyakumaran, choosing to work in the sector.

“Clearly you will never become wealthy working in a CLC and you won’t normally get the opportunity to participate in superior casework or end up in the Supreme Court or the High Court and sometimes your clients may be so disadvantaged they find it difficult to give you instructions,” he said.

But the rewards can be immense.

“When I was director of the Consumer Credit Legal Service we won a case against a multi-national financier and the settlement of $2.25 million was used to set up the Consumer Law Centre – with no need for government funding for 10 years,” he said.

At a glance

The Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC) is the peak body for 49 Victorian community legal centres (CLCs). In 1979 workers from CLCs in Victoria met to discuss issues of common concern and formed the Community Legal Centres Working Group. The group met regularly to exchange information and work on law reform and legal education issues. In 1982, the group received funding as a Secretariat. The group was formally constituted in 1983 and in 1987 it was incorporated as the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic).

The FCLC:

  • provides information and referrals to people seeking legal assistance;
  • initiates and resources law reform and policy work to develop a fairer legal system that better responds to the needs of the disadvantaged;
  • works to build a stronger and more effective community legal sector;
  • provides services and support to CLCs, and
  • represents CLCs with stakeholders.

Source: www.communitylaw.org.au

Statistics

Victorian CLCs delivered more than 135,000 individual client services in 2009-10, with 59 per cent civil law issues, including fines and infringements, 35 per cent in family law and 6 per cent in criminal law.

Casework to prevent family violence has more than doubled over the past five years – a likely result of increased state government funding from 2007-08 to create another eight family violence lawyer positions in Victorian CLCs.

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