Funding boost for online legal information a welcome step towards accessible legal help

Media Opportunity
Attorney-General the Hon Mark Dreyfus QC, MP will announce additional funding for the Law Handbook Online
10:30am, Wednesday 17 April 2013
Fitzroy Legal Service
124 Johnston Street, Fitzroy

Community Law Australia today welcomed the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’ announcement of $100,000 funding to continue the Law Handbook Online, but urged the Attorney-General to ensure people in all States and Territories have access to online legal help and can get further help if required.

“We need to provide legal help in ways that are most useful to ordinary people seeking answers to their legal problems. For many people, the Law Handbook Online is an effective way to help people resolve legal problems early before they become more serious and costly.

“However, some people will need help from a lawyer. Those who do not qualify for legal aid and can’t afford a private lawyer need face-to-face services provided by community legal centres that are currently badly under-funded,” said Carolyn Bond, national spokesperson for Community Law Australia.

She said the funding commitment to the Law Handbook Online was a welcome step that would ensure the continuation through 2014 of a vital online resource that provides Victorians with a plain language guide to the legal system summarising aspects of the law that most often affect people in everyday life.

“Community legal centres are working day-in-day-out to assist people with issues such as family law and domestic violence, employment law, consumer and debt matters, health and housing.

“Community legal centres help people who don’t qualify for legal aid but can’t afford a private lawyer. Their expertise is free, however their time and resources are extremely stretched by the high level of demand,” Ms Bond concluded.

Community legal centres receive funding from State and Federal Governments. They provide free legal help in their local communities to people who cannot afford private lawyers.

Download this media release (PDF)

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)

A proper safety net for legal help in Australia

What would a proper safety net for legal help in Australia look like? That question was recently considered at the 2012 Annual General Meeting of the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic), where Hugh de Kretser, Federation Executive Officer and national spokesperson for the Community Law Australia campaign, gave a wide-ranging presentation that can be watched here, read online or downloaded (PDF). We welcome your comments.

A proper safety net for legal help in Australia

Melbourne Town Hall, 10 October 2012

I never thought I’d start a community law talk with economic theory about market failure, but the starting point for looking at a proper safety net for legal help in Australia is recognising that the market isn’t addressing the community’s need for legal services – and that these legal services are vital to upholding the public good of a fair and accessible justice system.

The fact that legal services are not affordable for many Australians – particularly where litigation is involved – has been widely recognised.

The high cost of private lawyers has led various commentators, such as former Attorney-General Robert McClelland to say: “If you are from middle Australia and you want to embark on a substantial piece of litigation, you really have to put your house on the line”.

Costs like these are also a significant factor behind high rates of self-representation – around 30 per cent in the Family Court and higher in other jurisdictions.

Mechanisms such as no-win-no-fee agreements, litigation funding and class actions alleviate the unaffordability for a few whose legal issues fit the right criteria.

But the reality is, for many Australians, the private market for legal services is beyond their reach.

The Australia Institute earlier this year conservatively estimated that around half a million Australians miss out on the legal help they need each year, mainly for financial reasons.

Given the moral imperative of ensuring that justice is accessible for all, governments need to ensure that where legal services are required to obtain a just outcome, those legal services are available to people who otherwise can’t access them due to cost or other factors.

In other words, just like we have safety nets for education and health, we need a legal safety net.

Imagine if you started building a safety net for legal help in Australia. What would it look like?

In terms of the principles that should underpin the safety net, I think we’ve broadly got it right under the current National Partnership Agreement – the overarching agreement for legal assistance in Australia. The NPA, for short, focuses on early intervention, prevention and five access to justice principles.

These principles are:

Accessibility

We should aim to reduce the complexity of the system and allow people to understand and enforce their rights.

Appropriateness

The system should encourage people to resolve disputes at the most appropriate level – and should direct attention to underlying causes of legal problems.

Equity

The system should be fair and accessible for all. Access shouldn’t depend on your capacity to pay.

Efficiency

The system should deliver outcomes in the most efficient way possible.

Effectiveness

The system should work so as to deliver the best outcomes.

But how do we fare when we examine the current system against these principles?

Equity

Not very well on the equity front.

When people who can’t afford a private lawyer turn to legal assistance services for help, they find services either strictly limited in their eligibility or their scope.

For example, to get a grant of legal aid, you basically have to have a poverty-line income, with few assets and the right type of legal matter – either a criminal law matter where you’re facing jail or a family law dispute only involving kids – not property.

Interestingly, analysis by national CLC Women’s Legal Services Australia highlights a problem with equity even within this limited eligibility.

The bulk of legal assistance funding nationally goes to legal aid commissions. The bulk of this funding in turn goes on grants of aid. But because of the heavy focus on legal aid for crime, and the fact that most perpetrators of serious crimes are men, across the country around 60–70 per cent of legal aid grants go to men.

In other words, there is a systemic bias in the funding arrangements that denies women an equitable share of funding.

To some extent, CLC services alleviate this. Because only 7 per cent of our work is crime and we focus on family law, family violence prevention and civil law, around 60 per cent of our clients are women.

But CLC funding is around one seventh of legal aid commission funding – so the overall bias remains, particularly when Indigenous legal service funding, with its crime focus, is taken into account.

So an equitable legal safety net would target its eligibility in a way so as to ensure a fairer distribution of assistance for legal issues affecting both men and women.

In terms of geographic equity, an equitable legal safety net would seek to ensure that regions had similar access to services.

Even looking just at Victoria – we know this isn’t the case. Peter is going to talk about his experiences in Bendigo and the Goulburn Valley, but there are sadly more examples of areas with little or no CLC access.

Gippsland CLC has poor funding relative to its huge service area.

The Yarra Ranges are only served by infrequent outreach services and areas affected by the bushfires, like Marysville and further afield in Mansfield, still have no local CLC service.

Parts of Western Victoria around Horsham and Hamilton have little or no access.

Mildura stands out as the main region which, although it has access to a local CLC, has no access to a local Victoria Legal Aid office.

What’s required in terms of funding to establish proper equity of access is difficult to ascertain. The Community Law Australia campaign is calling for a doubling of the current Federal Government legal assistance spend and we think this is achievable, particularly given the Federal Government currently spends around twice as much on its own lawyers as it does for Australians who can’t afford a lawyer.

But the release of the National Legal Needs Survey report tomorrow in Canberra and the current review of the NPA by the Allen Consulting Group provide a crucial opportunity to analyse the best available evidence and quantify what is required in terms of funding to provide proper access.

Efficiency and effectiveness

In terms of efficiency and effectiveness, again I think the NPA has got it right with its focus on early intervention and prevention – and CLCs have a strong track record of delivering these services.

The National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) commissioned an independent economic cost benefit analysis of CLC services this year that found an average ratio of 1:18 – in other words, every government dollar of funding invested returns 18 times that in economic benefit – leaving aside the moral imperative of ensuring equitable justice access.

One of the interesting things to come from the analysis was that the time taken on particular legal services didn’t necessarily return an equivalent economic benefit – or put simply – a little information and advice can go a long way.

So the current bias in government spending on courts and tribunals relative to legal assistance services needs to be considered. As Robert McClelland said, there is mismatch in the justice system between supply and demand. $1 million in government funding gets you only 60 Federal Court cases, compared with 10,000 legal advices or 60,000 legal information services.

So an efficient and effective legal safety net would have a strong focus on early intervention and prevention, ensuring that the equivalent of services like the Fitzroy Law Handbook online, currently getting around 1 million visits a year, and the successful NSW Law Access telephone service – are available for free in every jurisdiction.

A final word on early intervention and prevention – it’s critical that we recognise the preventative value of law reform work.

As Michael Kirby said in a foreword to a CLC report: “I learned 30 years ago that to provide effective laws and lawyering, it is necessary to go beyond solving immediate problems. Lurching from one problem to the next, without examining the underlying causes of difficulty, leads to a band aid mentality”.

I’d encourage you to read our Annual Report – and in particular the Chairperson and Executive Officer’s report and our policy project summary – which highlight the role of law reform in preventing legal problems.

I’m running out of time but I wanted to end with two comments.

Pro bono

Firstly, on pro bono. There’s a myth out there that pro bono is the answer to meeting the huge unmet demand for legal assistance. Together with a few people in the pro bono world, we’ve been crunching the numbers to show that pro bono can’t possibly meet the demand created by government underfunding of legal assistance services.

The National Pro Bono Resource Centre (NPBRC) large law firm survey results came out on Friday. They showed that the pro bono by 36 of the nation’s 51 largest law firms equates to 191 lawyers working full time for free each year.

Impressive – and rightly commended.

Add to that the NACLC’s volunteer survey results based on which we estimate that lawyer (not law student) volunteers in CLCs add another 123 lawyers working full time for free each year.

Again – a great contribution and rightly commended.

But let’s put those 300 plus extra free lawyers in context.

There are about 60,000 lawyers in Australia. There are over 2000 lawyers working in CLCs, legal aid and Indigenous legal services across Australia (some part time). Legal aid work by private lawyers is equivalent to another 1000 legal aid lawyers.

So the pro bono and volunteer contribution are significant, but are only a fraction of the work by funded legal assistance services. Further, more than half of the law firm pro bono is done for organisations, not individuals, so there is a big discount factor in those 300 extra pro bono lawyers, not to mention the expertise gaps in pro bono around areas like family law.

So even if the pro bono and volunteer contribution of lawyers doubled, it would still only fractionally increase the overall capacity of legal assistance services – it would of course be a welcome increase, but it wouldn’t be the foundation for a proper legal safety net.

Legal assistance sector

I wanted to end by talking about the complementarity of the legal assistance sector – and it’s an issue I’ve given a lot of thought to and which I won’t fairly deal with in the last two minutes.

But I’ll end by saying that I think a proper legal safety net has the current four pillars of the legal assistance sector: legal aid commissions, CLCs, Indigenous legal services, and the private profession either doing legally aided work or acting pro bono.

Yes, there is ongoing discussion about the relative share of funding and the need to improve integration, coordination and data collection, but the current framework is a critical part of a proper legal safety net, with each arm playing a distinct but important role.

For CLCs, that unique role relates to issues like our use of volunteers and pro bono, our focus on legal education and law reform and our holistic service delivery – integrating legal services with non-legal services such as health, housing and financial counseling.

Of the 50 Victorian CLCs, around 20 are organisations that themselves deliver allied non-legal or paralegal services, and the vast majority of the remainder are either co-located with allied non-legal services or deliver outreach services in those locations – such as West Heidelberg being located at Banyule Community Health Centre – and North Melbourne CLC with its outreaches to Royal Women’s Hospital, Centre Against Sexual Assault House and Ozanam Community Centre.

Thanks for your time today – in ending I want to publicly acknowledge the great work done by the staff of the Federation. I’m lucky to work with a highly talented staff team with a real passion for achieving justice for the clients community legal centres serve.

Now, to talk more about the unique and vital role CLCs play within this framework, I’d like to introduce Peter Noble.

Free legal help expanded for Goulburn Valley locals in need

Media Opportunity

What: CLA Spokesperson Hugh de Kretser, Goulburn Valley CLC worker
When:10:30am–12pm, Friday 21 September 2012
Where: Uniting Care Cutting Edge Church Hall, 136 Maude St, Shepparton

Community Law Australia today welcomed the expansion of the Goulburn Valley Community Legal Centre as a boost for regional access to legal help.

Campaign spokesperson Hugh de Kretser said that the Goulburn Valley CLC, which started out as a pilot, would now be able to expand services for Goulburn Valley locals.

“The two year funding commitment from Victoria Legal Aid, supported by the Victorian Government, gives the Goulburn Valley CLC a stronger foundation and doubles its pilot funding. This is a great boost for a centre servicing a wide area with a significant population. It means more services delivered in more accessible locations for Goulburn Valley locals who need legal help but can’t afford a lawyer.”

“The Goulburn Valley CLC helps people across four local government areas with a total population of 140,000 stretching from Broadford to Cobram and incorporating Shepparton, Seymour, Tatura, Kyabram, Euroa and Numurkah.

“The Goulburn Valley CLC has provided over 1,000 advice and ongoing services to locals since opening in 2009 and enjoys strong community support. This funding boost is an important step towards meeting the need for quality legal help in Goulburn Valley.

“We hope the centre can grow over time as the total funding is only around a third of the minimum recommended CLC funding. But CLCs are used to doing more with less so we know it will go a long way.

“CLCs help people with issues like family violence, debt, relationship breakdown, tenancy, fines and much more. Many regional areas do not have local CLC services meaning people miss out on the help they need. Access to legal help shouldn’t vary depending on your postcode. We need well-resourced CLCs for all regional Victorians. Today’s announcement is a positive move in the right direction.

“This is a great day for Goulburn Valley locals. They can take comfort that if a legal problem crops up, they can contact their local CLC for advice and assistance,” said Mr de Kretser.

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”