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”