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Pollard, Angela --- "Activism in local communities" [2001] AltLawJl 27; (2001) 26(2) Alternative Law Journal 90

Community Legal Centres: Activism in local communities

ANGELA POLLARD[*] discusses some strategies employed to work with local Goori communities in Northern NSW.

The Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre is based in the Northern New South Wales town of Lismore, and has been operating as a funded service for five years. The problems confronting the Centre and its client base are shared by most CLCs: insufficient funding, client disadvantage and a political climate that is actively hostile to a law reform agenda.

In our region, these problems are exacerbated by the physical size and nature of the Centre’s geographic catchment and demographics that reflect the State’s highest levels of economic and social disadvantage. The greatest challenge for the Centre is to establish and maintain contact with the most disadvantaged client groups in the region and to encourage people to act on their rights, and to encourage the concept of legal activism in a traditionally conservative environment.

Rural centres often speak about the ‘tyranny of distance’ but often the problem has as much to do with the distance from metropolitan-based decision makers as the distance between client and service provider. Funding bodies often apply city-based formulas for core funding, failing to take into account the additional costs of rural services. Often the only affordable strategy that rural Centres can reasonably employ is to provide telephone advice services. This of course immediately disadvantages clients without access to a telephone and limits casework and court representation for clients in the more remote parts of the region. Outreaches are an expensive option, both in terms of travel costs and worker time. An entire day can be taken to travel to our furthest outreach, where a maximum of six clients can be assisted in that time. We look forward to the development of affordable video-conferencing facilities to improve service delivery to clients in remote communities.

Despite the much-touted ‘listening tour’ by federal politicians, our North Coast services continue to be under-resourced or non-existent. Sexual assault survivors can wait up to three months to obtain counselling from relevant services, and individuals facing mortgage foreclosure can wait up to six weeks for an appointment at a financial counselling service. These services are all part time and funding seems to be based on raw population figures rather than actual demand for services and geographical spread. In our region we have only just obtained access to Community Justice Centre mediators by means of a limited outreach service involving a panel based in Newcastle — some 600 kilometres south. Affordable alternative dispute resolution mechanisms are still very much in their infancy in rural areas. This is of particular concern in small communities where disputes often have social ramifications extending beyond the immediate conflict.

For the past three years our strategies have focused on local Goori communities, and more particularly Goori women and youth. In 1998 the NSW Department for Women provided funding to conduct a legal needs analysis for Goori women living in local communities. The findings, reported in Mabourah Dubay, Access to Law Report, acknowledge that the consequences of dispossession of land, forced removal of children (the stolen generation) and the undermining of cultural and traditional laws continues to adversely affect Indigenous communities. (Mabourah Dubay is Bundjalung for ‘many women’.) Women are particularly disadvantaged, often being isolated on remote communities and with limited access to information or resources. Travel is difficult, with no public transport, and many communities have only one telephone. Many women are illiterate. Legal outreaches on communities were seen to be too public and lacking confidentiality.

In response, the main strategy employed was the establishment of the Mabourah Dubay Advisory Council to inform the Centre on improving its service delivery to Goori women. The Centre’s Coordinator and Rural Women’s Outreach Solicitor work closely with the Council, which is made up of local Goori women interested in working with the Centre on relevant legal issues. The Council is responsible for setting the agenda for the Centre’s Indigenous community legal education programs and law reform activities. Council members also provide a network for the broader community in promoting the Centre’s services. As a result, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of Indigenous clients.

The Mabourah Dubay Council has been successful in a number of projects, including producing Sharon’s Story, a video on the effects of domestic violence and sexual assault on young Aboriginal women. Its current project, Mirrung Ngu Wanjarri (Bundjalung for ‘Aboriginal women making changes’), is a 12-month project funded by the NSW Department for Gaming and Racing, to develop a model for improved service delivery to Aboriginal women experiencing family violence.

Rural areas are categorised by their social conservatism and this brings particular challenges to CLCs which have their own traditions of social activism. While the North Coast is famous for its alternative community, we must also find strategies that work with the more conservative communities where sexual assault, domestic violence and family breakdown are still very much shrouded in secrecy and shame. As discussed in our research project on police responses to breaches of apprehended violence orders — How do I prove I saw his shadow? rural women who are subjected to domestic violence experience multiple barriers to justice: social disapproval for speaking out, police reluctance to intervene in a ‘family matter’, and feelings of shame that they are damaging their children’s relationship with their father.

Despite the very considerable problems encountered in operating a rural CLC, there are some very real advantages that should not be discounted. Rural regions are an excellent ground to engage in local law reform campaigns with key players being much more accessible and accountable to their local communities. Often reform can be achieved at the local level by virtue of smaller and more cohesive networks. Mabourah Dubay was able to convince the local Mayor to withdraw, amend and re-release the Council’s Crime Profile Report based on concerns of unfair targeting of Aboriginal juveniles. The NSW Police Local Area Command has agreed to pilot several initiatives raised in How do I prove I saw his shadow?, as well as committing resources to Mirrung Ngu Wanjarri. The success of these strategies may yet result in reforming police procedures throughout the State. You never know your luck in a small town!

[*] Angela Pollard is Coordinator, Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre.

© 2001 Angela Pollard

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