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LIV Awards President’s Award

LIV Awards President’s Award

By Steven Sapountsis


It is often said that the rule of law is served by access to justice. Conversely, the rule of law is compromised wherever access to justice is denied or restricted.

Tonight, I would like to honour what has proven to be probably the most important improvement in access to justice in Victoria for generations.

This is the movement that led to the establishment of the free legal services, now known as community legal centres.

I propose to make this year’s President’s award to three representatives of that movement.

But, before I name the recipients, please let me give you some context for making this particular award.

At present, there are about 50 community legal centres in Victoria, and about 200 nationwide.

They have become an integral and very important part of providing legal services and access to justice to a large number of Australians who could not otherwise afford to see a lawyer or have a lawyer represent them.

It is, I think, a compliment to these centres to say that they have become “mainstream”, and a vital part of the delivery of legal services, and as educators of generations of young lawyers.

In her welcome address to newly admitted lawyers, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, Her Honour  Marilyn  Warren often exhorts the new lawyers to make a mark on their new profession by volunteering at one of the many community legal centres.

However, that unequivocal acceptance of this important area of legal practice has not always been the case.

Until 1971, there was no community legal centre in Victoria, and there was limited legal aid. Before this time, access to lawyers was restricted to the wealthy and empowered.

The movement to challenge this was rooted in the social changes that took place in Australia and in Victoria in particular, in the late 1960s, and that came to impact upon the law and the delivery of legal services.

John Chesterman in his book, “Poverty Law and Social Change: The Story of the  Fitzroy Legal Service”, wrote that:

                “…the early 1970s saw the emergence of the idea that free legal services should not only be available, but should be provided in a way that enabled recipients to work to alter social conditions  that affected them.”

For the first time, the notion arose that even those disadvantaged by poverty or otherwise should be able to say: “I have a lawyer working for me”.
Those free legal services were set up, promoted, staffed and nurtured by brave and challenging lawyers and social workers.
I say brave because, at that time, free legal services were not welcomed by, and were indeed seen as a challenge to,  the legal establishment, the various arms of law enforcement and even governments.
As such, those early founders and promoters of the free legal services were risking social and professional disfavour and even harm to their careers by setting up a free legal service.
But, they caused a seismic shift in the delivery and availability of legal services in Victoria and a profound improvement in access to justice for many Victorians, which continue to be felt today.

That contribution deserves to be recognised and celebrated.

The early legal centres from about 1972-3 included the:
Fitzroy Legal Service
Springvale Free Legal Service
St Kilda Legal Service
Broadmeadows Legal Service
Nunawading Legal Service (which is now the Eastern Community legal centre);
the Brotherhood of St Laurence Legal centre; and
Flemington/Kensington Legal centre.

It is not possible to honour all of those who played a part in the establishing and nurturing of the free legal services in Victoria – there are too many of them. But I felt it important to bestow the award on some individuals as representatives of the legal service movement and of all who contributed to that movement.

Those recipients are:

  • Mr John Finlayson;
  • Mr Erskine Rodan, AM and
  • Dr Simon Smith

Let me say a few words about each of them:

Mr John Finlayson
John was a 21 year old youth worker when he helped found the Fitzroy Legal Service back in 1972.
John has told of how, when it opened, the queues extended out of the Fitzroy Town Hall basement where the centre was held and all the way down Moore street – such was the extent of the unmet legal need in what was then a very poor working class suburb.
John worked originally as a community development worker, and then after he got his law degree he went to work at Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre before he set up his own general law practice John Finlayson Lawyers.
He has also completed overseas research on Young People and the Law for the Victorian Law Foundation and national research on Human Rights and Young People in Australia for the Youth Affairs Council of Australia.
He has been awarded the Rosemary Spence Memorial Award for Innovation in Youth Work.

Mr Erskine Rodan, AM:
Well before he became one of Australia’s leading migration lawyers, Erskine helped found the Nunawading Legal Service with the objective of “Unlocking the Law” for the people of the Eastern suburbs.
Today the original headquarters in an old weatherboard house has expanded to fourteen legal services under the umbrella of the Eastern Legal Service.
With his own practice, Erskine helped establish immigration law as a specialist practice area, and was a founding member of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (now known as Refugee Legal).
He served on the Council of the Law Institute of Victoria between 1984 and 2006, has been a contributor to many LIV committees and he remains a committed advocate for the disadvantaged and a campaigner for the advancement of human rights as well as a principled advocate for asylum seekers.
In 2009, Erskine was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to the law and to the community through legal aid and as an advocate for refugees.

Dr Simon Smith
Dr Smith was one of the original proponents of the Springvale Free Legal Service (later Monash Springvale Legal Service) that was set up in a drafty old farmhouse in Springvale, where it was said there was barely enough room to swing a malnourished mouse – let alone a cat.
Simon was then a Law Faculty academic at Monash and was a major advocate for the service, driving its role as one of the premier University clinical legal education services in Australia.
He is currently an Adjunct Professor, at the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University Law School.
Dr Smith is also a legal historian and the editor of the wonderful 175th anniversary history of the Supreme Court: “Judging for the people” which all lawyers admitted this year will receive gratis, as have all the judges of the Supreme Court.

[Comment re Jon Faine – making a difference]

Please acknowledge the recipients.


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