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Pro bono: In the public space

Every Issue

Cite as: March 2014 88 (03) LIJ, p.75

Justice Connect lawyer Lucy Adams is undertaking a Churchill Fellowship for a project called In the Public Eye. She is speaking with organisations in the US, Canada and Europe about laws, policies and practices that regulate public space and asks how they affect the homeless.

I have the privilege of speaking to a range of experts, including lawyers, academics, police officers, advocacy organisations and people with a direct experience of homelessness, about a topic that’s been at the forefront of Justice Connect work for over a decade. The first client we assisted in 2001 sought help with fines and infringements for “public space offences” and this remains the most common legal issue faced by clients.

Each year, through outreach clinics staffed by dedicated pro bono lawyers, Homeless Law helps about 200 homeless clients deal with fines for things like having an open container of liquor, or being drunk in a public place, begging, littering and conduct on public transport. It seems obvious that if you’re experiencing homelessness you’re more likely to get these fines because you’re carrying out your private life in a public place. Homelessness also makes it hard to deal with the fines – paying them and navigating the unwieldy legal process. A fine for being drunk in a public place, for example, is about $600.

When I visited Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York City I heard that these same offences are impacting on homeless people in those cities. I also heard about a range of other offences that impact disproportionately (or indeed solely) on people experiencing homelessness, including illegal use of shopping carts, trespassing in parks after they’ve closed for the night, and sitting, sleeping or lying on the sidewalk in contravention of a law that prohibits just that.

In this climate of enforcement – one person I spoke with called it “an epidemic of criminalisation” – there is an important role for legal services to play in making sure people experiencing homelessness understand their rights.

In Los Angeles I visited Public Counsel, the largest pro bono law firm in the US. It “works with major law firms and corporations to change people’s futures”. It includes 61 attorneys, 52 support staff including five social workers, and more than 5000 volunteer lawyers, law students and legal professionals. Public Counsel assists more than 30,000 children, youth, families and community organisations every year.

Public Counsel runs the Los Angeles Homeless Court along with Los Angeles’ County Court, City Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office and Homeless Service Authority. If a person with a history of homelessness has undertaken 90 days of rehabilitation, has not offended in six months and can obtain a satisfactory report from a service provider, they can apply to have certain tickets and warrants dismissed. Pro bono lawyers provide representation for clients appearing in the Homeless Court.

Many of the challenges the Court faces are similar to Victoria’s special circumstances process. It is administratively burdensome for social services to provide documentation, and for legal services assisting clients to navigate the system and enforcement agencies assessing the applications. The process takes a minimum of six months, which can make it difficult for clients to stay engaged.

These burdens have weighed down the Homeless Court and at times have required it to put a hold on new applications. That said, the benefits delivered to people who are able to have their warrants addressed and “begin fresh” are substantial and it is an essential (if inadequate) feature of a system in which homelessness is so harshly penalised.

While my findings are all preliminary at this stage I can say two things with some certainty. First, a range of legal and non-legal measures are required to reduce the harsh impact of the law on homeless members of the community. Second, in the absence of free legal advice and representation, people experiencing homelessness have little or no way of accessing the justice system that persistently plays such a large role in their lives.

For more information visit www.inthepubliceyeblog.wordpress.com. A final report will be published mid-2014.



LUCY ADAMS is the Justice Connect Homeless Law manager and principal lawyer. This column is coordinated by Justice Connect.

Looking to help?

To help lawyers and firms become involved in pro bono work – legal services and otherwise – the LIJ profiles a community group and its needs each month. See www.goodcompany.com.au for more skilled volunteering opportunities.

Global Vaddo Charitable Trust

Contact: Joanna Cantwell

Email: mail@goodcompany.com.au

Global Vaddo Charitable Trust (GVC) was established in March 2007 with the aim of working with the people of Goa to provide assistance for the underprivileged in local communities. It has a focus in regional areas where access to community services and funding is not readily available for the underprivileged. The GVC offers early learning education and supports 30 children and families with a range of needs including health, employment, education, food and financial support. GVC has built customised facilities to deliver educational programs to target identified community issues. Its services and programs have been designed to produce self-sufficient communities by helping people help themselves.

Current needs of the group

GVC invites nominations to fill current vacancies on its board of trustees. GVC is governed by a volunteer board which meets every six weeks and is responsible for setting the direction of the organisation, raising funds, administration, capital investment and grant activities. Trustees also sit on committees appointed by the board.

For more information about volunteering see www.volunteeringaustralia.org and www.ourcommunity.com.au.

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