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Editors --- "Legal Centres Efficient, innovative, effective" [2002] AltLawJl 35; (2002) 27(2) Alternative Law Journal 98

Efficient, innovative, effective

The Alternative Law Journal has had a long association with community legal centres (CLCs). For the benefit of new readers who may not be aware of the journal's history, the Alt.LJ was first published as a newsletter at Fitzroy Legal Service in Melbourne in 1974. It grew to become a regular periodical under the name of Legal Service Bulletin with initial appeal to a CLC readership but before long attracted a broader audience interested in law reform and current legal and social issues. In

1992 it was renamed the Alternative Law Journal and is now in its 28th year of publication.

The journal is reviving a column it used to publish regularly on CLC matters. This issue's column presents an overview of CLCs at present. Future columns will present more specific material on particular activities and centres. Legal centre writers are encouraged to submit material to the column organisers for publication (see the end of this column for contact details).


Community legal centres are independent, non-profit organisations providing referral, advice and assistance to more than 350,000 people each year. Ser­ vices are provided free of charge. There are currently 207 centres in Australia, ranging from centres with no paid staff relying on volunteers, to offices of ten or more employees.

Most centres are able to provide confidential advice and assistance about a variety of legal matters. These include:

• credit, debt and consumer issues,

• family law,

• social security,

• victims of crime,

• criminal,

• domestic violence,

• court support,

• physical and intellectual disability,

• environmental law,

• tenancy,

• discrimination,

• employment, and

• immigration.

They provide information, advice, referral and sometimes representation to individuals and groups, community legal education and training and advice to governments on policy and law re­ form issues. Centres also develop innovative and effective methods of service delivery to meet their particular com­ munities' needs. These methods include telephone advice, services out of normal working hours, duty lawyer ser­ vices, outreach services, on-call lawyers for young people in custody, the use of language interpreters, court support schemes for women and services in rural and remote areas.

Centres at a glance

• Number of centres nationally: 207

• Clients assisted in 99/00 (est): 350,000

• Funding (including State and federal government): over $40 m

• Support for centres comes from: volunteers (lawyers, students and community members) along with government and trust funding.

Who uses centres?

While anyone seeking legal advice or assistance may contact a centre, ser­ vices are targeted to people who cannot afford private legal assistance and who do not qualify for legal aid.

Centres provide an invaluable first point of contact for people who have no previous experience and little knowledge of the legal system. Clients may be referred immediately to legal aid offices, private solicitors or to specialist providers of non-legal services. In general, centres only provide continuing assistance for people unable to afford the services of a private solicitor.

Centres have led the way in making the law and legal processes understand­ able and approachable for groups of people who often experience difficulty in 'legal situations'. These groups include migrants, young people, people who speak little or no English and Aboriginal communities.

Client statistics

Clients present to centres with a range of legal problems. While there are strong regional variations, the most common are family law problems (typically around 25%), credit and debt (10%), criminal charges (8%), consumer issues (8%), tenancy and housing (8%), victims of crime (8%), motor vehicle accidents (6%), personal injuries (5%) and employment related issues (5%).

Services provided

Most centres, even those with no paid staff, provide a range of basic services including legal advice by phone and in person (during and outside standard business hours); assistance with applications for legal aid; referral-on to appropriate individuals or organisations.

Funded centres generally employ at least one lawyer whose work includes advice and casework in selected areas. Employed solicitors are also responsible for supervising volunteers and students.

Centres are well placed to identify deficiencies in the legal system which adversely affect people in their communities. They are in daily contact with people and their legal problems; they see patterns emerge over time and can often develop reforms to prevent those problems occurring. The education and policy development work undertaken by centres is directly influenced by case­ work.

Centres have been at the forefront of community legal education programs. These programs usually aim to provide information to avoid legal problems, provide information to assist the resolution of legal problems, provide information to assist people to recognise their legal rights. The means of education varies widely, from visits to schools and community groups to work with local media.

Centres have proved over time to be prolific publishers of plain English in­ formation about the law.

Centres have played a crucial and well regarded role through the provision of advice to government, the development of policy and work towards the reform of legal process and administration. Centres play an active role in advocating for the development of a fair legal system.

Centres and legal aid

The services offered through centres complement those provided by legal aid commissions. Centres and their State associations work closely with commissions and their staff. Centres are frequently the first contact point of clients later referred to commissions.

Federal Budgets since 1996 have significantly reduced funding to legal aid commissions. The reduction in funding to legal aid has put more pres­ sure on community legal centres.

The Senate conducted a detailed inquiry into the Australian legal aid sys­ tem over the two years from June 1996. The findings of this inquiry confirmed that legal aid is increasingly available only to a restricted and exceptionally poor group of Australian citizens.

Cost effective services

The Commonwealth, State and Territory governments provide the bulk of funding to centres for general legal operations. The Commonwealth now funds 129 centres in whole or in part. In 1999-2000 the Commonwealth contributed $19.09 million. Other sources of revenue including the States and Territories contributed a further $22.42 million. Recently eleven new centres have been established in rural areas. However, most centres still receive insufficient core funding (from State and Commonwealth sources combined) to enable employment of the equivalent of three full-time staff.

Established centres are often able to attract funds and donations from sources outside government funding programs. Centres have developed a strong reputation as efficient administrators and managers of human services and are frequently chosen to auspice new pro­ grams and projects.

A key feature is the use of volunteers in the delivery of services. A significant part of the 'community' in legal centres is the unpaid time and expertise of practising lawyers, students, paralegals and ordinary community members.

Centres extend their capacity in other ways including pro bono arrangements with the private profession and cooperative relationships with university law schools.

Specialist centres

Most centres provide legal and other services to communities at large. Overtime there have developed numerous centres which specialise in particular areas of law or which provide services to particular client groups. Examples of such centres are the Intellectual Disability Rights Centre in Sydney and the Consumer Credit Legal Service in Melbourne.

Structure, accountability and independence

Funded services are incorporated as either companies limited by guarantee or as associations. Community members are involved as volunteers and as members of boards and management committees. All centres are subject to annual independent financial audits. Centres prepare regular detailed reports for members and funding bodies. In re­ cent years, there have been a number of centres that have merged or developed out of larger community organisations including church-based charities. This has opened up a debate about the independence of the services and the values systems that are the foundation for community-based centres that offer confidential legal assistance regardless of creed, colour or clan.

Current issues

While centres continue to provide and develop quality legal services and innovative responses to identified need, the sector is also working on improving strategic planning processes, and the collection, management and use of data. It also campaigns for increased funding for all legal aid services; develops standards and quality measures; improves relationships with other service providers including legal aid commissions and the private profession and extends its use of information technology and other enhanced communication strategies.

Finally centres are increasingly seeing themselves as advocates for human rights and are using their voices to champion necessary legal protections for all Australians and those who come to our shores.

Economic rationalism, small government, competition policy and 'whatever'

Where do CLCs fit in today's policy environment? Last year the National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) prepared a report which provided an overview of the changing broad policy environment in which community legal centres operate, tak­ ing into account things such as economic rationalism and competition policy.

The report, entitled 'Where It's At: The Context Project', also highlights some of the threats and opportunities of this new environment and is aimed at CLC management, staff and volunteers.

Write for this column

One feature of the report is that it encourages the reader to take account of the different layers of government: the ideological agenda, the political agenda, the departmental and the intra­ departmental agendas. The report is available on the NACLC web site, under publications: <>.

So, CLC workers and volunteers take up your keyboards, pens, quills, spray cans etc. We are interested in hearing about your stories, news, innovations and issues to contribute to this regular column in the Alternative Law Journal.

Contact Vicki Harding at the National Association of Community Legal Centres or a member of the Alternative Law Joumal/CLC committee in your area.

The committee comprises:

Conleth 0'Neill, Spencer Gulf Community Legal Service (SA)

Robin Inglis, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service

Rima Hadid, Tenants Union of NSW Mary Anne Kenny, SCALES (WA) Stephen Hall, Intellectual Disability Rights Service (NSW)

Ian Horrocks, Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic)

Liz 0'Brien, Welfare Rights & Legal Centre ACT

John Stewart, Toowoomba Community Legal Service (Qld)

Robin Ayres, Mental Health Law Centre (WA)

NACLC Publications Committee


Suite 408, 383 Pitt Street, Sydney 2000

Tel: 02 9264 9595 Fax: 02 9264 9594

Email: NACLC@fc!

Web site:

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