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4.4 Community legal centres and Indigenous legal organisations

Community legal centres

Community legal centres (CLCs) are independent, non-profit organisations that provide free referral, advice and assistance to approximately 400,000 people each year. There are around 200 centres in Australia. They range from centres with no paid staff to offices of ten or more employees, with most having three to six staff including at least one employed solicitor. Many CLCs involve volunteer lawyers and law students in their service provision. There can be quite a high turnover of staff in CLCs, especially in rural, remote and regional CLCs.

Community legal centres (CLCs) are independent, non-profit organisations that provide free referral, advice and assistance to approximately 400,000 people each year. There are around 200 centres in Australia. They range from centres with no paid staff to offices of ten or more employees, with most having three to six staff including at least one employed solicitor. Many CLCs involve volunteer lawyers and law students in their service provision. There can be quite a high turnover of staff in CLCs, especially in rural, remote and regional CLCs.

Most CLCs are either generalist centres that provide services to their local areas with defined geographical boundaries, or specialist centres that provide assistance to a particular client group or in a particular area of law. There are, for example, centres which specialise in immigration law, disability discrimination and consumer credit and those that offer services targeted to the particular legal needs of women, young people or tenants. Note that many generalist centres may in addition be funded to operate a specialist service, for example, advising parents liable to pay child support, or providing a local tenancy advice service.

Over 50 per cent of people who seek help from CLCs receive some form of government assistance or income. Approximately 25 per cent live in government-funded housing. Between a third to a half of clients are born in countries where English is not the dominant language. About 40 per cent of clients have one to three dependants.

CLCs have a national association, the National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC), and also state or territory associations, some of which operate a secretariat which provides support to CLCs in the state. There is a national conference of CLCs every year, normally in September. This can be a good opportunity for pro bono practices to meet and network with CLCs.

There are also various networks of CLCs organised around particular issues or themes such as: youth; welfare rights, human rights, tenancy, Indigenous women, -disability rights, and regional, rural and remote issues. These networks engage in policy work and joint initiatives on areas of law and can be another point of contact for law firms.

See for more information, a list of all CLCs in Australia and a list of national CLC networks.

CLCs provide legal advice, referral and casework services to clients and undertake community legal education, law reform and policy work and community development.

CLC activities focus on areas of law relevant to disadvantaged clients where no other services are available. The areas of law covered by generalist CLCs include employment, social security, consumer credit, housing, discrimination, protection from violence, crimes compensation and those aspects of family law and criminal law not adequately covered by legal aid commissions.

Legal advice, referral and casework

Almost every CLC offers some kind of legal advice service, whether face to face or by telephone. Local generalist CLCs tend to operate legal advice clinics at their premises and/or at outreach locations. Advice clinics are frequently operated out of business hours for the convenience of clients and often make use of volunteer lawyers to provide advice. Statewide specialist services also offer advice clinics and outreach services but also offer telephone and sometime email services due to the greater geographical dispersion of their clients.

Although anyone can get free advice from a CLC, CLCs target their services to those financially in need. For many clients, CLCs are the first point of contact about a legal issue. CLCs are skilled in identifying a client’s needs and either referring them to the appropriate agencies or providing advice to that person.

Most funded CLCs are also able to offer a limited casework service. As CLCs have few staff solicitors and a number of competing priorities, only a small proportion of clients seeking advice are likely to be offered casework assistance. Matters are accepted according to guidelines developed by each centre having regard to factors such as the other services that are available in their area, the perceived needs of the local community, the requirements of any targeted funding they may receive, the hardship that may be suffered by the client if assistance is not provided, the likelihood that acting in a particular matter may benefit a group of disadvantaged people beyond the particular client and whether centre staff have the skills required to undertake particular types of matters.

CLCs will generally not undertake casework where other services are available, including private solicitors who are willing to undertake no win – no fee litigation. Accordingly CLCs rarely provide assistance with personal injuries or criminal law matters nor family law matters where legal aid is available.

Community legal education

CLCs have been active in community legal education (CLE). CLE programs usually aim to provide information to avoid legal problems or to assist the resolution of legal problems, or provide information to assist people recognise their legal rights. The means of education vary widely: from visits to schools and community groups, to work with local media. Some CLCs also produce education material in plain English and/or translated into community languages. Some, especially those that specialise in a particular area of law, prepare specialist guides for community workers and practitioners.

Law reform and policy work

CLCs play an important role in identifying legal issues that impinge on their client groups. Through the experience of their advice and casework services CLCs acquire knowledge about the way in which the law or the absence of law affects the lives of their disadvantaged clients. CLCs are in a position to use this information to provide advice to government on policy development and work towards improvements in laws and the administration of the legal system. CLCs can do this through activities such as participating in advisory councils, writing law reform submissions and lobbying government.

Indigenous legal organisations

Until 30 June 2004, most Indigenous legal organisations providing Indigenous Australians with free legal advice and representation were funded by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS) (formerly ATSIC). However, following the Commonwealth government’s abolition of ATSIC, new arrangements for administering Indigenous affairs were implemented, and both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) and Family Violence Protection Legal Services (FVPLS) are now funded through the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department.133 The government has also announced that the funding method for legal services currently provided by ATSILS is being changed through the staged introduction of tendering and contracting. 134

Under the new tender arrangements, contractors (and other organisations) can apply for funding from other programs within the Attorney-General’s Department including test cases, larger cases, Indigenous law and justice advocacy and Indigenous crime prevention, diversion and rehabilitation activities. There is some concern that the new arrangements will inappropriately mainstream the delivery of services to Indigenous people and a Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs is examining the proposed administration of Indigenous programs and services by mainstream departments and agencies.135

It is apparent that the future of legal services for Indigenous Australians is uncertain, and the remainder of this section should be read in light of the above recent developments.

There are more than 60 Indigenous legal organisations in Australia, including 25 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services (ATSILS), 13 family violence prevention units (FVPUs), eight specialist Indigenous women’s legal services and 18 native title representative bodies (including land councils and regional authorities).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services (ATSILS)

ATSILS are normally incorporated Aboriginal associations with Indigenous management committees. They provide services in defined geographical areas. Most are located in remote or regional Australia. They range in size from three staff to more than 100, including solicitors and field officers.

Most of the work done by ATSILS is in the area of criminal law (91 per cent). All ATSILS provide duty lawyers who provide advice and representation to Indigenous people charged with criminal offences. Most visit regional or remote communities on the day of, or on the days preceding, court. Lawyers have limited opportunities to provide advice and assistance in relation to matters not before the court.

Some ATSILS provide family and civil law services (in 2002-03, 2 per cent and 4 per cent of ATSILS services, respectively). Some also provide specialised services such as mental health legal services, financial counselling services, prisoners’ legal services or suicide prevention programs. ATSILS with civil and family practices provide legal advice, referral and casework services. Most civil and family law practices are located in major metropolitan centres; some have outreach programs.

Most ATSILS undertake a certain amount of policy advocacy work in relation to the issues faced by their clients either directly, or through the national association. The National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NAAILS) operates a secretariat which provides some legal and policy support to ATSILS. New South Wales and Queensland also have state associations (being the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and Queensland Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services respectively).

Assistance provided by ATSILS is not means tested and every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person is eligible for assistance. Nevertheless, the great majority of ATSILS clients are in receipt of some form of government assistance. Most ATSILS provide legal advice on a ‘drop-in’ basis and many have 24-hour telephone advice services for criminal matters. As mentioned above, it is unclear how the new arrangements for Indigenous legal service providers will affect service delivery.

Family violence prevention units

Thirteen family violence prevention units were, until recently, funded by ATSIS. With the closure of ATSIS, funding is now through the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department. Thirteen new units are due to open in 2005. Most of the units are small, comprising a single solicitor and one to three community violence prevention workers. The units provide advice and representation in domestic violence matters as well as court support services. In addition, most provide advice and limited casework assistance in the areas of family law and victims compensation. Family violence prevention units focus on prevention and upon providing assistance to families affected by violence. They are also active in community legal education and often provide non-legal programs such as community education workshops, family support and art programs.

Indigenous women's legal services

There are eight Indigenous women’s legal services operating in Australia. They are funded under the Commonwealth Community Legal Centres program.

Most Indigenous women’s legal services are independent incorporated associations although some operate in conjunction with another CLC, typically a women’s legal centre. Their services are similar to those of CLCs but target the needs of Indigenous women, particularly in the areas of family law, child welfare and protection and in relation to issues of family violence.

Native title representative bodies and land councils

There are 16 organisations which have been determined to operate as representative bodies under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) and two land councils established under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (NT). Taken together, their areas cover the majority of the land mass of Australia.

Native title representative bodies (NTRBs) and land councils are large organisations with a range of statutory responsibilities. Their legal departments provide legal services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities in the areas of land and property law, including land rights, native title, environmental law, commercial law, mining law, heritage protection, the management of national parks and pastoral land, as well as a wide range of other related matters. NTRBs and land councils are active in community legal education and also in law reform and policy work.

NTRBs are generally independent incorporated Aboriginal associations, managed by boards with members elected by the relevant Indigenous communities. Land councils are statutory authorities managed by councils of elected Indigenous representatives.

Most NTRBs and land councils are located in regional and remote parts of Australia and almost all have branch offices in a large number of Aboriginal communities within their geographic area. NTRBs and land councils vary in size from about ten to over 120 staff. They employ solicitors as well as anthropologists, project officers, natural resource management officers and field staff.


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