Community Legal Centres

Community Legal Centres

(Motion, 23 October 2014, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

I move that this House:

(1) Notes the contribution of community legal centres in providing free legal advice and assistance to people and communities facing economic, social and cultural disadvantage across New South. Wales.

(2) Recognises the hard work and dedication to human rights, social justice and equitable laws and legal systems of community legal centre staff and volunteers, including solicitors, barristers, social workers and law students.

(3) Acknowledges that through community legal centres, professional solicitors and barristers, law students and large law firms are able to provide pro bono services to many disadvantaged people.

(4) Notes that community legal centres work to achieve systemic change through community legal education and law and policy reform.

(5) Notes the importance of State and Federal funding to community legal centres.

Community legal centres are independent organisations that provide free legal advice and assistance to economically, socially and culturally disadvantaged and marginalised people and communities, and help them develop the skills to advocate for themselves. Through law and policy reform and legal education, community legal centres also advocate for human rights, social justice and a better environment. Community legal centres are different to legal firms in that they develop relationships with communities and try to develop long-term solutions to help their advancement. Community legal centres are accredited by the national peak body, the National Association of Community Legal Centres.

Centres have paid staffers, usually lawyers, social workers and community educators, but they also engage solicitors, barristers, law students and social workers on a volunteer basis. This links professionals with the disadvantaged in the community, providing them with opportunities to provide pro bono services and strengthen their communities. Individual services include information and referral, legal advice, legal casework and representation in targeted areas of the law. These services are usually free, although sometimes a small fee is charged. Services can be provided over the phone or after hours.
Community legal centres work with governments, Legal Aid and the private legal profession to get the best outcome for their clients. There is a high demand for individual services, with many centres receiving thousands of requests every year. Clients are usually selected based on disadvantage and public interest, and even under these strict criteria many eligible and vulnerable people are turned away due to a lack of resources. Legal education services are often provided to particular communities. For example, Redfern Legal Centre produced a guide for boarding house residents explaining their legal rights, and a repair kit for Housing NSW tenants. The Inner City Legal Centre has developed a number of fact sheets for its communities including on police powers and drug searches, and gay, lesbian and transgender discrimination.

These tools help communities exercise their rights and access benefits they are eligible for, and establish realistic expectations from government departments and authorities—something that benefits both sides. There are 39 community legal centres across the State providing a range of different specialist and general services. Operating out of my electorate are the Arts Law Centre of Australia, the Australian Centre for Disability Law, the Court Support Scheme, the Financial Rights Legal Centre, the HIV/AIDS Legal Centre, the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre, the Inner City Legal Centre, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the Public Interest Law Clearing House, the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, Tenants NSW, the Aged-care Rights Service Incorporating Older Persons Legal Service and the Welfare Rights Centre.

Generalist centres provide individual assistance on legal matters such as compensation, tenancy, apprehended violence orders, banking and finance, children and young people, consumer rights, crime, employment, environment, family law, housing, development, human rights, immigration, neighbours, welfare, transport, health, wills and estates. Some centres also target services to specific communities such as women and young people, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex [LGBTI] community, and homeless persons. Community legal centres work with and assist the most vulnerable in the community and have knowledge about how laws impact them. Hence, a vital part of their work is their involvement in law reform and public policy development and advocacy.

The Inner City Legal Centre played an integral role working with police, mardi gras representatives and the government in resolving tension between the LGBTI community and police over reports of heavy-handed policing during last year's mardi gras festival, and helped to improve relations and policing for the past and future festivals. Tenants NSW lobbied successive governments for laws to provide basic safeguards and access to justice for residents of boarding houses. The effective campaign, which engaged various stakeholders and advocates, spanned more than a decade and led this Government to enact boarding house legislation. The campaign stemmed from casework with boarders, which revealed their lack of rights.

The Redfern Legal Centre raised serious concerns about the impact of Millers Point housing sell-offs on tenants and is providing them with assistance in their relocation. Many centres raised concerns about how move-on orders would impact on people with a mental illness, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—concerns now confirmed by the Ombudsman—and how retrospective cuts to victims compensation would impact vulnerable people. I, like other members of this House, rely on this advocacy and advice on public policy matters. I often work with community legal centres when new laws are proposed and I write submissions advocating for reform. The public interest work of community legal centres must not be restricted; they play a vital role in law reform, contributing to government inquiries and campaigning to bring issues to government attention. They lobby to fix unfair and ineffective laws and policies, and address social issues affecting members of the community who are experiencing disadvantage.

I also acknowledge private practitioners, both barristers and solicitors, who provide pro bono legal and practical assistance to many legal centres and their clients. For the HIV/ Aids Legal Centre, practitioners from firms, including DLA Piper, and Gilbert + Tobin, provide vital assistance including one-off advice on client matters, the ongoing sharing of expertise, the provision of meeting rooms for events, and pro bono assistance with the design and layout of various publications and resources. Almost all centres receive funding from a variety of sources including State and Federal governments and philanthropic organisations. For the 2012-13 financial year the Public Purpose Fund provided $5.3 million to community legal centres in New South Wales, accounting for 28 per cent of their total funding. This component is vital to their existence and effective operation, and must be continued. I commend the motion to the House.

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