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Pro bono: Helping the helpers

Every Issue

Cite as: September 2013 87 (9) LIJ, p.79

PilchConnect's Rules Review Project highlights how pro bono resources can be used strategically to meet a discrete area of legal need for community organisations.

In November 2012, the Associations Incorporation Reform Act 2012 (Vic) (the Act) introduced a new legislative regime for Victorian incorporated associations. Since that time, PilchConnect has worked with its member law firms to provide a tailored, multi-faceted response to the enormous need for legal information and assistance among the 38,000 not-for-profit incorporated associations in Victoria.

The impact of the changes has been widespread – perhaps far greater than had been envisaged by the legislators. In survey data collected by PilchConnect in May 2013 from almost 200 Victorian incorporated associations, 72 per cent of respondents identified that transitioning to the Act was “challenging” or “extremely challenging”. The changes organisations are required to make to their rules or purposes proved problematic for most of those surveyed.

When the law changes, the day to day operations of these organisations must go on. As one survey respondent noted: “It’s hard to prioritise the review that is needed [to the rules] when there is work supporting our clients that needs to be done”.

The survey data mirrors PilchConnect’s day-to-day experiences with Victorian incorporated associations – many of which are small, volunteer-run charities with limited resources. The 1000-plus inquiries to PilchConnect’s advice service over the past financial year have been dominated by requests for information regarding the new laws and their practical impact. Inquiries have reflected the confusion, frustration and uncertainty experienced by many organisations that lack the resources and capacity to independently understand the changes.

There is recognised value in providing pro bono legal assistance to community organisations. A 2011 Deloitte Access Economic Evaluation estimated the economic contribution of PilchConnect’s work in 2010-11 to be approximately $4.3 million – highlighting the ongoing benefit of “helping the helpers” so that their limited resources aren’t diverted away from their core work.

It makes sense to help these organisations understand and transition to the new Act, and to help them make the necessary changes to their rules. But when there is a sudden spike in demand for legal assistance, how can limited pro bono resources be used for the maximum benefit of the community?

The Rules Review Project has been a coordinated response by PilchConnect and the private legal profession to address this unique, unmet legal need.

The development of plain English legal information has been central to the success of the project. A suite of online resources were released on the PilchConnect website to coincide with the introduction of the new Act. In partnership with Herbert Smith Freehills, legal training was provided to organisations to step them through the practical implications of the new Act, and the changes they may be required to make to their rules.

To complement the training and resources, a set of simple rules that meets the minimum requirements set out in the Act was produced and made freely available to small incorporated associations. The simple rules provide an alternative to the model rules contained in the regulations to the Act, and offer a starting point from which these organisations can tailor their own rules.

The project’s multi-tiered approach aimed to build the internal capacity of incorporated associations to independently understand the law and how it applies to them. This approach allowed PilchConnect to reserve access to pro bono referrals for incorporated associations that assist Victoria’s most disadvantaged community members. PilchConnect supported and trained 60 pro bono lawyers in 11 medium and large firms and one in-house legal team to assist these clients by providing continuing legal education training and briefing resources.

As a result of the project, countless incorporated associations have been supported to update their rules and understand their obligations arising under the new Act. This allows them to focus their energies and resources on carrying out their important work in the community.

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.

CuriousWorks

Contact: Joanna Cantwell

Email: mail@goodcompany.com.au

CuriousWorks sets out to subtly reshape the systems of cultural production in Australia for the benefit of all Australians. Its work is about instigating a more diverse, accessible, imaginative arts and media scene.

Current needs of group:

CuriousWorks is seeking to expand its committee of management. The organisation is entering a new phase in its development, with a successful long-term funding round with the Australia Council and an increase in demand for its innovative digital media and film services. It is inviting applications from individuals who have a proven track record and skills and attributes that could contribute to the growth and sustainability of the organisation.

goodcompany:

See www.goodcompany.com.au for more skilled volunteering opportunities. For more information about volunteering in general see www.volunteeringaustralia.org and www.ourcommunity.com.au.



PHOEBE DUGGAN is a PilchConnect lawyer and CHARLOTTE AHEARNE is manager legal advice and assistance, PilchConnect.

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