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Rawsthorne, Margot --- "Bringing the Women's Legal Resources Centre to the bush" [2001] AltLawJl 29; (2001) 26(2) Alternative Law Journal 92

Community Legal Centres: Bringing the Women’s Legal Resources Centre to the bush

MARGOT RAWSTHORNE[*] outlines strategies for assisting women in rural areas to access legal services.

The Women’s Legal Resources Centre’s (WLRC) ongoing priority is increasing access to our services by rural women, and WLRC is aware of the many problems facing these women in accessing legal services: the ever-present reality of conflict of interest in small communities; limited availability of legal aid and difficulties in getting solicitors to take on legally aided cases; and the lack of comprehensive legal support services for rural women.

As a result, WLRC continues to operate a dedicated toll-free telephone advice line — 1800 801 501 — that women in rural and remote areas can access for free legal advice and referral and, where possible, some minor assistance. The Centre also travels to rural communities to provide legal training, education and advice services as often as possible, as well as specifically to Indigenous communities as part of its Indigenous Women’s Program (discussed below). In 2001, we plan to visit the Wagga Wagga region; Central Coast/Hunter region; Leeton, Griffith and region; Armidale, Tenterfield, Glenn Innes and Illawarra, Moruya, Eden, Bega. The Indigenous Women’s Program (IWP) will visit Menindee, Naranderra, Bourke and Kempsey. The Centre also participates in regional forums and policy debates that discuss legal issues affecting rural women.

Support and assistance by women’s and other services in rural communities makes this work successful, and we look forward to continuing these connections in the year (and years) to come.

A key strategy implemented by the Centre in 1997, is the IWP which has led to many exciting projects and initiatives to support Indigenous communities in addressing violence and other systemic issues. The innovative and holistic work of the program, along with its impact on Indigenous social and legal policy in Australia, was recognised by the awarding of the 2000 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) Award for Justice to WLRC in December 2000.

In running the IWP, the Centre ensures that all workers operate in a culturally sensitive framework, and to this end continues in-service training and awareness sessions on Indigenous issues. The IWP offers WLRC staff and beyond the opportunity to learn new ways of working with Indigenous women and communities, and invites WLRC workers to think ‘outside the square’, and to be innovative, holistic and inclusive in legal service delivery.

IWP has provided thousands of women and girls with legal services through our Indigenous Legal Contact Line, outreach programs (including Miller and Correctional Centres), casework, and education. The primary focus of IWP is to address violence against Aboriginal women and children, family law, child protection, and access to justice issues, particularly for Indigenous women in rural and remote areas.

IWP spends considerable time not only working ‘on the ground’ with women and communities, but also working in partnership with government and policy makers to effect changes in government practice, protocol and service delivery to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This will continue in 2001 with our continued involvement, in particular, with the Commonwealth Indigenous Family Violence Partnerships program and Family Law Pathways Committee that aims to stem the tide of retrograde steps in the family law arena.

Winsome Matthews, one of our Aboriginal Program Workers, is also Chair of the NSW Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council (AJAC). AJAC formulates and advises on policy to the NSW government in relation to Indigenous policy and practice. This has provided the Centre with a unique opportunity to input directly at governmental level.

The Centre’s most recent major initiative has been the establishment of an ATSIC funded Violence Prevention Service in Walgett named by local women as Walanbaa Yinnar Wharoo (strong Aboriginal women and children). Two solicitors and two Walgett-based Aboriginal workers were appointed last year. The solicitors provide legal advice, casework, education and training, and representation is also provided to women seeking apprehended violence orders at court.

The project is guided by a locally based steering committee, made up of Aboriginal women Elders. Walanbaa Yinnar Wharoo operates within a holistic framework and aims to initiate and support community initiatives around violence. In the coming six months the project will run groups for young girls, work with communities around a men’s program, and provide more training and information workshops.

An important part of all of the services provided by WLRC is our volunteer solicitors. Women who contact the Centre for legal advice come from right across Sydney and all regional centres. A number of committed woman solicitors volunteer their time a few hours every week, month or every six months, to give our clients a free, one-off, convenient, face to face legal advice appointment in their own offices.

This service is greatly used and appreciated by our clients, particularly women who may have difficulty using our telephone services perhaps because of a disability (for example, hearing impairment), or who need to bring documentation for more complete advice, or have documents which need to be checked or prepared on their behalf.

We would like to expand this service to women in rural areas. We would welcome any women solicitors (particularly rural-based solicitors) who are interested in participating in this program to contact our Principal Solicitor, Catherine Carney to discuss this. Catherine can be contacted on tel 02 9749 7700.

[*] Margot Rawsthorne is Solicitor, Womens Legal Resources Centre (NSW).

©2001 Margot Rawsthorne

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