ACT Attorney-General reveals benefits of law reforms initiated by a community legal centre

Simon Corbell, the ACT Attorney-General, revealed today that reforms introduced a year ago have allowed more than 3,000 vulnerable people to keep their driver licences, reducing their risk of job loss, and helping to cut red tape. To date almost $1million in fines have been recovered by the Government through the new process, with another $3.5 million currently set to be recovered under the new management plan.

The problems faced by vulnerable people who lose their licence because they are unable to pay a fine in full had been identified by Street Law, a program of Welfare Rights Centre. In November 2011, Street Law published a report about the negative impacts of the existing system of enforcing traffic fines.

The report outlined the fines system in Canberra, which did not allow people to pay fines by instalment, and automatically suspended peoples’ driver licences after 56 days. Once the 56 days had elapsed, a person could not challenge the fine in court or seek a court-ordered instalment plan. A person’s licence simply remained suspended until they could pay the fine in full. As a result of the system, many people had their licences suspended because they could not afford to pay their fines.

In May 2012, the ACT Greens, with the support of the Government, passed new laws to address this problem.

This is a clear example of how community legal centres are often in a unique position to identify the impact of laws or processes on disadvantaged people. While there are many examples that illustrate the importance of this work, the ACT Attorney-General has produced concrete figures that illustrate the benefits of changes resulting from a CLC’s policy work.

Policy and law reform work by community legal centres can improve processes and laws, and prevent future problems arising. Governments and law reform bodies regularly seek the views of centres.

The ban on any policy or advocacy work with Government funding (by the Federal Government and some state governments) will stop many centres undertaking this valuable work. There must be a rethink.

A human story about workplace bullying and unfair dismissal

For an example of the work CLCs do in the area of employment law, here is a story from Kingsford CLC:

Kingsford Legal Centre (KLC) has developed a strong relationship with Asian Women at Work (AWAW), an organisation which aims to empower Asian women workers. AWAW recently referred a 54 year old Chinese, Cantonese speaking woman to KLC for advice about unfair dismissal.

Our client was regularly bullied by a male colleague while employed and on one occasion reacted to his bullying and threw tea at him.

Two days after this incident our client was called into a meeting with her superiors where she was dismissed. Another Cantonese speaking employee was asked to attend the meeting to translate for our client. Our client was not asked for her side of the story and the word “dismissal” was lost in translation. Our client did not realise that she was being dismissed until a team leader escorted her out of the building.

We represented our client in an unfair dismissal application at the Fair Work Commission. Our client wanted to be reinstated. We successfully negotiated for our client to be reinstated before the matter went to arbitration, on the condition that she receive a written warning about her behaviour.

Initially, our client was reluctant to accept the warning as she wanted her employer to acknowledge that her actions were provoked by her colleague. We negotiated with her employer to re-word the warning to reflect the circumstances of her actions. Our client has since resumed her job.

CLCs urge candidates to reveal their plans to address legal crisis

CLCs across the country have written to the major party candidates in their local electorates ahead of Election Day in a quest for more clarity about their plans for access to justice in the community.

Legal problems can crop up at any time – but access to quality legal help shouldn’t depend on your bank balance or where you live.

Despite recent increases in funding to individual centres there is still huge unmet demand for free legal help among Australians who can’t afford to pay for a private lawyer.

Below are some examples of high demand and level of service delivered by CLCs to residents in their local electorates:

WA

Last year SCALES recorded 1,162 requests for legal services they were unable to assist with due to lack of resources.

Gai Walker, Managing Director of SCALES, said: “The issues our CLC helps with are important matters that can have a huge impact on an individual or family’s stability, wellbeing and ability to participate successfully in society.”

VIC

Last year Peninsula CLC provided over 7,000 free legal advices, with ongoing assistance given in over 2,000 matters.

Jackie Galloway CEO of Peninsula CLC, said that even with substantial volunteer and pro bono support, they can only partially meet demand for free legal help.

“Sometimes clients are waiting for over a month for an appointment, and less than one in three clients are provided with ongoing assistance,” Ms Galloway said.

Last year Gippsland CLS had to decline a request from the Latrobe Valley Magistrates Court to attend an additional family violence intervention order day to provide essential assistance to applicants. The Service is also unable to extend the applicant duty lawyer service to the other courts in Gippsland due to lack of funds.

QLD

Jessica Brake, Principal Solicitor at Mackay Regional CLC said that usually they are booked three to four weeks in advance and that local demand for legal help was high.

NSW

“Marrickville Legal Centre has been providing free legal help to people who can’t afford a lawyer since 1979. We provide vital legal help to residents cross three electorates, and we are concerned that Access to justice has not yet been addressed in the local area,” Michael Walton, Principal Solicitor of Marrickville LC said.

To read the individual media releases by each CLC see below:

WA

SCALES

VIC

Peninsula CLC

Gippsland CLS

Barwon CLS

QLD

Caxton Legal Centre

Mackay Regional CLC

NSW

Marrickville CLC

 

 

Protected spaces for family violence victims should be national

Media Opportunity

Launch of Protected Persons Space with Hon Robert Clark, Attorney General and Chief Magistrate Ian Gray, Family Violence advocate Christine – who has used the space and can talk about the intimidation of using the Courts is also available for interview

10.30–11:30am Friday, 9 November 2012

Ringwood Magistrates Court, 39 Ringwood Street, Ringwood

Community Law Australia today urged State and Federal governments to increase their response to family violence matters by increasing community legal assistance to vulnerable women and children, and to take up an initiative being launched today at Ringwood Magistrates court nationally.

The Ringwood Magistrates court, in conjunction with Eastern Community Legal Centre and other agencies, is today launching a safe space, or separate waiting area, for women and children who face intimidation and reliving trauma through the court process.

The project, called Protected Persons Space, responds to vulnerable court users who have felt intimidated and in some cases re-traumatised by having to share the waiting area with the abusive person whom their intervention order was sought against.

Community Law Australia spokesperson Hugh de Kretser welcomed the initiative and said that it was imperative that Australia had the right framework to respond to family violence legal matters.

“When women seek help from the legal system, it is vital that they receive an appropriate response.

“Safe areas such as these are already in place in certain courts in NSW, but ought to be part of the response to family violence across the country.

“We have best practice family violence prevention legislation in Victoria, but that needs to be matched with proper resourcing of community lawyers to meet the surge in demand, as well as proper resourcing for courts and non-legal support services.

“It can be extremely stressful for women to take steps to obtain an intervention order. Separate, safe waiting areas are an important step in reducing that stress, avoiding further trauma and providing an appropriate justice system response to family violence.

“With proper resourcing, we can increase protection and reduce the risks of intervention order breaches. The tragic case of Sargun Ragi and others highlight how imperative it is that the system works properly to protect women facing violence.

  • Family violence is the most common issue community legal centres help Victorians with.
  • Demand for family violence prevention legal services has soared, with services increasing 70 per cent over the past five years.
  • Last financial year, community lawyers in Victoria delivered over 18,000 family violence related legal information, advice and casework services.
  • These services helped vulnerable women and children obtain legal protection from family violence and linked them in with legal and non-legal help on related issues like family law, crimes compensation, debt and housing.

“The legal system is complex and difficult to navigate. We need to ensure that vulnerable women and children are given the very best set of tools to ensure they are safe and their rights are protected.

“This tool kit should involve safe waiting areas for vulnerable court users, and increased access to free legal help for those that need it most,” said Mr de Kretser.

Download this media release (PDF)

Community lawyers help tenants facing eviction

Tenancy problems such as eviction can have severe impacts, especially for vulnerable women and children.

Fortunately, community legal centres are there to help, as this video from Western Australia’s Northern Suburbs Community Legal Centre shows.

Community Law Australia is campaigning for more funding for poorly resourced community legal centres, so this vital work can continue in the face of increasing demand for quality, free legal help in local communities. Help us take action.

Queenslanders left adrift as cuts close tenancy advice services

Community Law Australia today raised concerns that Queenslanders faced serious service gaps and rising disadvantage from the Queensland Government’s axing of the Tenancy Advisory and Advocacy Services (TAAS) program.

Campaign spokesperson Hugh de Kretser said that the 23 services which relied on the funding were in various stages of packing up and trying to finalise work for clients.

The vast majority of funding for TAAS comes from interest generated on tenant’s bonds.

“These are vital services that helped thousands of Queenslanders maintain tenancies. Cutting them will create injustice and increase homelessness. Many people who need help will have nowhere else to turn.

“Many people will simply give up on their rights. Those who try to represent themselves will create costs for the tribunal as it tries to provide a fair hearing for people totally unfamiliar with the law and tribunal procedure.

Examples on the Ground:

Caravan & Manufactured Home Residents Association (CAMRA)

Caravan and Manufactured Home Residents Association spokesperson Ron Whittington said that their Wynnum service would be forced to break their lease and sell their assets before 30 September.

“In these last two weeks we are finishing up case files – having to tell clients we cannot do any more for them is heartbreaking.

“We are tying up the loose ends as best we can and attempting to equip our clients to self-represent in the Tribunal.”

  • 27,000 people live in caravans across Queensland
  • Around 15,000 Queenslanders live in manufactured homes, although it is harder to quantify; they are primarily elderly and retired people on low incomes.
  • CAMRA helped 600–700 households last quarter.
  • The service has operated for 20 years in Wynnum, Brisbane and services the entire State by phone.
  • CAMRA and the Tenant’s Union of Queensland worked with Monte Carlo residents some years ago to purchase the Caravan Park in Cannon Hill. This park is now under threat of sale by the State Government.

Tenancy Advisory and Information Service in Whitsunday

Service Coordinator Julie Scanlon said that the community, which had relied on their services for 17 years, would now have to travel 126 kms away to reach the nearest housing office.

“We work really closely with all the services in our area. This area has quite limited access to help – it’s going to be a big change for our community.

“We were seeing around 100 households per month. We’ve been a part of this community for 17 years.

“We found out our funding was being pulled by finding a media release online, a letter from the Government confirming it came a week or so later,” said Ms Scanlon.

CLA Spokesperson Hugh de Kretser said the impacts of the cuts were evident.

“You can’t just close 23 services without having major repercussions in the community. It will force clients onto other already stretched services, create disadvantage and will marginalise Queenslanders’ ability to seek help when they need it most,” said Mr de Kretser.

An earlier open letter from Community Law Australia to Premier Newman has met with no response.

Download this media release (PDF)

 

Volunteers a safety-net for vulnerable women in SA

Hugh de Kretser speaks with (from left), Cheryl Chin, Zita Ngor, Geeta Bansal and Joanna Alexis about the contribution of volunteers to community legal centres.

The recent NACLC national conference saw the launch of compelling data on the contribution of volunteers to community legal centres around Australia.

However, the human face of volunteer efforts and their vital work shone through when we spoke to Zita Ngor, Director of Women’s Legal Service (SA), Joanna Alexis and Geeta Bansal, volunteer lawyers with the service, and to Cheryl Chin, a final year law student and volunteer with Roma Mitchell Community Legal Centre.

Zita said the Women’s Legal Service “relies extensively on the generosity of volunteers. Without them, it would not be possible to deliver our statewide program to vulnerable groups of women”.

With only four full-time solicitors and more than 40 volunteers, the service last year was able to help more than 2,600 women who in many cases had nowhere else to go with urgent problems such as domestic violence and homelessness.

Zita said the challenges faced by these women included not only their own safety, but the safety of their children, and the service was often their “last point of contact”.

Without a recent 40 per cent expansion of the volunteer program, Zita said 40 per cent of the women seen by the service over the last year would have faced “no help whatsoever from anybody”.

In Zita’s experience, women in such vulnerable and precarious situations “sometimes consider taking their own lives”.

Volunteer lawyer Joanna Alexis shared the story of a woman who called the service as she wandered the streets looking for help. Asked what help she needed, the woman replied “help, any help”.

Joanna agreed with Zita that the service was often the last resort for desperate women, and that even in cases where the service could not solve every problem, many women were glad that they were at least able to be heard and given advice.

Three years’ experience at the service has taught volunteer lawyer Geeta Bansal that many women have no idea what their rights are. She said when the service engaged women in a conversation, they were often empowered with a better sense of what they could do to improve their situation. Having more volunteers had improved the capacity of the service to achieve this, she said.

Cheryl Chin is one of more than 250 volunteers at the Roma Mitchell Community Legal Centre, which has no paid staff, and, according to Cheryl, has received no government funding in the past 11 years.

A final year law student, Cheryl agreed that without paid supervision by qualified lawyers, it was difficult to achieve the full benefit of volunteers. Volunteers who had yet to qualify as lawyers helped in a variety of valuable ways, but “can’t provide substantive legal support,” Cheryl said.

Zita acknowledged the range of non-lawyer contributions to the Women’s Legal Service, noting that volunteers included not only legal students, law graduates and private lawyers, but also people offering administrative and specific project support.

Together they worked to meet the “immediate and pressing needs” of vulnerable women, she said.

Commenting on the contribution of volunteers to community legal centres, national CLA spokesperson Hugh de Kretser said that “volunteer and pro bono assistance is crucial, but we can’t take it for granted. It’s no substitute for properly funded legal assistance services”.

For further information, read our media release, “Volunteers vital to community legal services”