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Pro bono: On the inside

Every Issue

Cite as: October 2009 83(10) LIJ, p79

Prisoners with mental illness are benefiting from a pro bono partnership aimed at breaking a cycle of reoffending.

In its submission to the 2006 Senate Select Committee on Mental Health, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health described the all too common plight of a mentally ill offender being "ignored, mismanaged, released unprepared, rapidly reoffending and returning to prison".1

For offenders in a Melbourne women's prison, an innovative pro bono partnership offers new hope that this cycle can be broken through targeted legal intervention.

Inside Access is a project which resources and supports prisoners with mental illness by providing access to specialised legal assistance. The project offers civil law casework services and aims to lower recidivism rates and ensure better outcomes for prisoners with cognitive impairment on their release from prison.

Inside Access is a pilot initiative of the Mental Health Legal Centre, with funding from the Legal Services Board, specifically harnessing pro bono legal support. It provides an innovative and practical solution to the gap identified, both in research and in practice, in the availability of civil law services to prisoners with a mental health issue.

With the assistance of 20 pro bono lawyers from DLA Phillips Fox, Inside Access began clinics at the women's Dame Phyllis Frost Centre Marrmak psychiatric care unit, in April 2009. The service has 22 clients so far, who have been assisted with a range of civil matters. These include debt, tenancy, access to medical treatment, guardianship/administration, victims of crime and discrimination.

Working in partnership with pro bono law firms ensures delivery of a quality legal service to the clients, as well as building pro bono capacity and training young pro bono lawyers across a range of civil law issues.

The response from the prison, clients and pro bono lawyers has been overwhelmingly positive.

Mental illness is endemic within the prison population and prisoners with mental health issues are doubly disadvantaged in accessing justice.

The 2008 report of the NSW Law and Justice Foundation, Taking Justice into Custody, is a detailed study of access to justice by, and the legal needs of, prisoners.2

The report finds that "bringing quality legal help closer to inmates so as to reduce the number of intermediaries" and "recognising points . . . when it may be most beneficial to engage with inmates to address their civil legal needs" can substantially assist in addressing barriers for prisoners.

This means timely provision of legal information, advice, representation and access to processes and, for example, direct access to legal assistance telephone lines and face-to-face civil legal advice services.

This report, and Inside Access' experience, recognise that unresolved civil matters, particularly in relation to debt, credit, housing and mental health treatment, adversely affect prisoners' mental health and may lead to reoffending. People with a cognitive impairment often lack the ability to assert their rights and seek remedy to legal matters.

On release, because of unresolved civil matters their lives may be in chaos leading to further criminalisation.

One of the pro bono lawyers wrote: "In talking to prisoners suffering from mental illness, the immensity of the stress caused by these legal problems can be strongly felt - as can the relief experienced by these prisoners after talking to independent practitioners able to alleviate this stress. In one case, a client called the Inside Access phone service after conducting a week-long hunger strike to protest her treatment at the prison. After a 12-minute conversation with two lawyers from the Service, the client felt assured that her rights could be protected in other ways, and decided to eat".

As a result of the pilot, Inside Access has clear and overwhelming evidence of the need for civil legal services to the prison (mental health) population, which it is soon to extend to the Melbourne Assessment Prison (Acute Assessment Unit).

The importance of partnerships with pro bono law firms and other service providers is vital to Inside Access, which looks forward to extending the project further in future thanks to the pro bono support it receives.

SAMANTHA SOWERWINE is coordinator for Inside Access. PILCH coordinates the Pro Bono column and further information is available from

1. Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health submission to the Parliament of Australia Senate Select Committee on Mental Health and quoted in the committee's 2006 report A National Approach to Mental Health - From crisis to community.

2. Anne Grunseit, Suzie Forell and Emily McCarron, Taking Justice into Custody: The legal needs of prisoners, 2008.

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: Evolve

Contact person: CEO Paul Stolz


Address: 3 Alexandra Parade, Collingwood 3066.


Evolve provides a supportive environment for disadvantaged young people to evolve into strong, caring and purposeful individuals. At "Typo Station", a rural property in alpine north-eastern Victoria, Evolve builds skills, resources and support networks for long-term growth and life achievement. A two-year program for youth aged 14-17 years, who are experiencing difficulties at home or school, Evolve builds life-skills through alternative education. Applied leadership programs for students in Year 9 and above focus on those experiencing disadvantage. Evolve also runs other tailored partnership programs across Victoria delivering alternative youth education.

Current needs of group

Evolve requires voluntary support for a range of functions including marketing, partnership development and administration. Apply at


See goodcompany at for more information on this and other skilled volunteering opportunities.

For more information about volunteering in general, see also:



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