If you need quality, free legal help in your community, visit the legal help page at the website of the National Association of Community Legal Centres. There you will find links to Community Legal Centres and related legal services in local communities in your state or territory.
Australia’s legal system
Like the health system, with its mix of public and private hospitals, community health centres and Indigenous health services, the legal system involves public and private services working together.
Community Legal Centres
Community Legal Centres are independent, non profit, non government organisations with a strong focus on early advice, problem solving and working with other agencies to address connected legal, financial, social and health problems.
Community Legal Centres focus on helping people who don’t qualify for legal aid and mainly help people with civil and family law issues, like debt, family violence, tenancy, employment law and relationship breakdown.
Due to funding shortages, Community Legal Centres focus on assisting disadvantaged Australians. Over 80% of the people helped by Community Legal Centres earn under $26,000 a year.
As well as helping on individual issues, Community Legal Centres provide community legal education to inform Australians about the law and prevent legal problems, and undertake law reform work to fix problems with the law. Thousands of lawyers and law students around Australia volunteer in Community Legal Centres, and centres also receive substantial pro bono support from law firms.
Indigenous legal services
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) are independent, non profit, non government bodies that provide culturally sensitive services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There are eight ATSILS around Australia.
ATSILS mainly focus on criminal and family law issues. Due to funding shortages, they are forced to limit eligibility for help to those on low incomes.
There is also a network of around 30 Indigenous Family Violence Prevention legal Services (FVPLS) around Australia which focus specifically on helping people who are victims of family violence or sexual assault. FVPLS provide legal assistance, court support and counselling.
As well as helping on individual issues, ATSILS and FVPLS deliver community legal education and law reform work to fix problems with the law.
Legal Aid Commissions
Legal Aid Commissions are state and territory government agencies. There are eight Legal Aid Commissions in Australia. The commissions typically have a central head office and regional offices.
Legal Aid Commissions provide legal information, advice, duty lawyer and legal representation services. Due to funding shortages, eligibility for legal representation is limited predominantly to people with very low incomes and low assets who need help with serious criminal law matters, or child protection and family matters involving a child’s welfare or living arrangements.
If a person is eligible for legal representation, they may either be helped by a lawyer employed by the legal aid commission, or receive funds to pay for a private lawyer who does legal aid work.
Legal Aid Commissions also deliver community legal education and undertake some law reform work.
Private legal profession
The private legal profession helps people who can’t afford to pay for a lawyer in several ways.
Some law firms do “legal aid work” where they are paid by Legal Aid Commissions to help people who are eligible for assistance. Law firms can sometimes help people who can’t pay up front, by agreeing to “no win no charge” or other deferred fee arrangements, mainly in personal injury claims or family law disputes over property.
Private lawyers also make an important contribution through pro bono work – work for free for people who can’t otherwise get legal help. Many lawyers and law students also volunteer in community legal centres.
Supporting and expanding the reach of the system
Community Law Australia supports the current framework for getting legal help in Australia, involving community legal centres, Indigenous legal services and legal aid commissions, all working in partnership with the private legal profession. Our focus is on securing investments to extend the reach of this system so that we can help more Australians with their legal issues.