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Pro bono: An old story of abuse

Every Issue

Cite as: (2008) 82(6) LIJ, p. 89

With an ageing population it is important that seniors have access to community legal centre which are dedicated to meeting their needs.

Some time ago the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) was approached by Laura*, an 80-year-old woman who was illiterate and spoke only limited English.

Laura had purchased a property with her son as joint tenants. For the next five years they lived together at the property and Laura was subjected to ongoing physical and verbal abuse by her son.

Laura’s son refused to drive her to regular medical appointments, she was often deprived of food for days and on leaving the house it was standard practice for her son to unplug the telephone line so that she was unable to contact any other family member for assistance.

After receiving further threats of serious physical abuse, Laura eventually escaped the property and contacted her daughter and a crisis intervention domestic violence centre.

When she came to PILCH in need of pro bono legal assistance, Laura had been living in a rooming house for two years and had been trying unsuccessfully to negotiate with her son to sell the property.

One of the most troubling aspects of Laura’s story is that this form of elder abuse is not uncommon among elderly people.

While there are various definitions of elder abuse, it is generally taken to include any act occurring within a relationship where there is an implication of trust, which results in harm to an older person.

Despite the extent of abuse and its devastating consequences, it is only recently that the need to develop measures to prevent elder abuse has crept onto the radar of law and policy makers.

In part this is due to the pioneering work of a number of seniors’ advocacy organisations and community legal centres advocating on behalf of their elderly clients.

The focus also comes with a recognition that the Australian population is ageing. Data recently released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts that by 2051 26 per cent – or nearly eight million Australians – will be aged over 65.

In October 2007, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs released its report Older Persons and the Law which drew attention to the diverse legal and legally related needs of older people, particularly those who are poor, infirm, from non-English speaking backgrounds and living without the support of friends or family.

Among the report’s many recommendations was the need for increased government funding of community legal centres so as to enable them to provide specialist services to older people, including outreach services.

In its 2007-08 budget, the Victorian government pre-empted this recommendation and committed to three-year funding of a new specialist, statewide elder abuse prevention centre which would provide a range of services for elderly people including legal advice and advocacy, education and training programs, social service programs and an information line.

In a unique arrangement, four organisations have come together, jointly funded by the Department of Community Planning and Development and the Department of Justice, to establish a centre.

The new service, Seniors Rights, will be run by the Council of the Ageing (COTA), Eastern Community Legal Centre (Box Hill), Loddon Campaspe Legal Centre (Bendigo) and PILCH.

Each of the parties to this new venture brings diverse strengths, resources, expertise and innovation.

The focus of the legal work of the service will be on the capacity of the law to deal with and remedy the mostly hidden issues of financial, physical or emotional abuse, social isolation and exclusion and discrimination experienced by older people.

While the legal issues that older people face are not necessarily always unique to their demographic, there are a number of common barriers to older people exercising their legal rights, such as fear of complaining and fear of disrupting family relations, compounded by feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Seniors Rights was officially launched on 27 April.

For more information about the service, contact Kristen Hilton at

For information on the LIV CPD Elder Law Conference 2008 on 6 June, go to For information on the LIV Elder Law Section, go to

This column is coordinated by the VICTORIA LAW FOUNDATION. For further information, contact the Pro Bono Secretariat via the VLF website

*Name has been changed.

Looking to help?

To facilitate lawyers and firms becoming involved in pro bono work other than legal services, the LIJ will profile a community group and its needs each month.

Name of group: Extended Families Australia
Contact person: Norah Breekveldt

Brief description of work of group
Extended Families Australia helps families who have a child with a disability by linking a mature aged volunteer, known as a “foster grandparent” with a family who has a child with a disability. A “foster grandparent” spends regular time each week with the child and the family, relieving the parent by spending time with the child and building a special relationship with the child.

Current needs of group
Extended Families Australia is seeking volunteers for a number of wishes ranging from a legal review of employment practices to assistance with their forthcoming birthday event celebrations.

For more information about volunteering, visit


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