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Pro bono: Hope for the homeless

Every Issue

Cite as: (2006) 80(9) LIJ, p. 80


Assistance from legal firms has helped the Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic expand its activities to help prisoners and their families find homes.

Since 2001, more than 2000 clients have sought legal assistance and advocacy from the PILCH-coordinated Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic.

The clinic has now expanded its services to hold legal clinics at the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO).

The VACRO outreach arm is dedicated to providing free legal advice for pre and post-release-prisoners and their families who may be at risk of homelessness.

In its first month of operations, more than 10 clients have sought out the service. It is staffed by a team of three-four pro bono lawyers who attend the clinic for two hours per week and then provide ongoing assistance.

More than 20 lawyers from Corrs Chambers Westgarth are taking part in the project. Corrs is the most recent addition to the 10 firms and legal departments actively involved in the program.

Corrs solicitor and project team leader John-Paul Cashen said it was the first time the firm had been involved in a program such as VACRO and the lawyers taking part appreciated the opportunity to be involved in such a scheme.

“Feedback from lawyers attending the clinic has been fantastic and awareness of the program is growing among recently released offenders and their families,” he said.

In August 2004, the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic published Improving the Administration of Justice for Homeless People in the Court Process, a report investigating the link between homelessness and crime.

The report reveals a vicious cycle, with homeless people more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system, and ex-prisoners more vulnerable to homelessness when they exit the system.

More than 75 per cent of homeless people identified a direct causal relationship between their offending behaviour and their homeless status.

Prisoners are generally released with limited personal funds and no immediate job prospects. There is a chronic and critical shortage of supported and emergency accommodation, as a recent Australian Health and Welfare Institute report makes clear.

Access to legal advice about matters involving social security and Centrelink, the Office of Housing and tenancy disputes could be the difference between securing accommodation and homelessness.

A recent case involved a client who was removed from the public housing waiting list while in prison and now faces another wait of up to three years.

VACRO provides general legal information to families of offenders who suddenly find themselves embroiled in a confusing legal system.

In prison, offenders may have legal representation, but often their families do not and they are left with very little support.

Offenders and their families face an uphill battle for access to justice, appropriate health care and housing, and must overcome widespread discrimination. In 2005, the clinic consulted with 106 people experiencing homelessness in Victoria about the current protection of their human rights.

One homeless woman wrote that she had been “singled out many times because of my criminal record”. Others reported difficulty gaining employment due to their criminal records. Despite concentrated law reform campaigning, discrimination on the ground of criminal record remains lawful in Victoria.

Clinic coordinator Kristen Hilton said the new collaboration with VACRO would provide opportunities for ongoing advocacy in relation to systemic issues particularly where laws have a disproportionate impact on marginalised and disadvantaged people.

In doing so, the clinic endeavours to play a role not only in providing sustainable pathways out of homelessness, but also in the prevention of homelessness and promotion of social inclusion and stability. This would not be possible without the dedication and commitment of the pro bono lawyers involved.


LAURA MACINTYRE is a writer at the VICTORIA LAW FOUNDATION (VLF), which coordinates this column. For further information contact the Pro Bono Secretariat via the VLF’s website http://www.victoria.law.org.au Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic, PILCH coordinator and principal solicitor Kristin Hilton assisted with this month’s column. For further information about the clinic, see http://www.pilch.org.au or contact Ms Hilton on ph 9225 6684.

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 Jean Hailes Foundation for Women’s Health
Address 173 Carinish Road, Clayton
Contact person Aleeza Zohar
Ph 9562 6771
Email aleeza.zohar@jeanhailes.org.au
Website http://www.jeanhailes.org.au

Brief description of work of group
The Jean Hailes Foundation for Women’s Health cares about the wellbeing of Australia’s five million women aged 35 plus. The Foundation provides a unique response to the needs of women through excellence in research, community and professional education and clinical care. By helping women prepare to avoid illness when in their 30s and 40s, the Foundation will help them age well.

Current needs of group
The Foundation is looking for both legal and non-legal volunteers. It is looking for someone to advise it on its employment contracts and privacy and confidentiality documents. It is also looking for marketing and PR people to work on an upcoming project and branding strategy.

For more information about volunteering, visit
http://www.goodcompany.com.au
http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au
http://www.ourcommunity.com.au
http://www.govolunteer.com.au

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