Herogram for a CLC
Friday, September 14, 2018
Justinian in Community Legal Centres, Melbourne, Peach Melba

Inner Melbourne Community Legal's first 40 years ... Started by big-wigs for disadvantaged citizens ... Health-Justice partnerships ... Legal-Social partnerships ... Addressing underlying contributors ... Identifying patterns in legal issues ... Peach Melba on a vibrant social-justice model 

Pioneering collaborations with hospitals and community centres

Julian Gardner, one of Australia's first Community Legal Centre lawyers, declared, "... in the 1970s I did not expect community legal centres to survive into the next decade".  

CLCs were a radical challenge to the Australian legal landscape when they arrived in the early 1970s. Their longevity and shift into becoming a vital, mainstream service is now taken for granted. 

However, in the beginning CLCs were on the fringe of the legal community, born out of passionate protest movements, civil rights activism and a new generation of young law graduates with a social justice consciousness. 

One such CLC founded in this context was the North Melbourne Legal Service. Established in 1978, later changing its name to Inner Melbourne Community Legal, this year IMCL celebrates 40 years of providing free legal advice and assistance to its community. 

Its founders Peter Collinson QC, Justice Peter Almond and William Houghton QC, former and current employees and volunteers as well as other members of the legal industry converged upon the Melbourne Town Hall on August 16 for an evening of celebration and storytelling. 

As a generalist CLC, Inner Melbourne Community Legal undertakes both individual case work and systemic priorities that emerge from identified patterns in client's legal issues. 

IMCL has had an important role in developing health-justice partnerships in Victoria. Lawyers from IMCL attend on-site at the Royal Women's Hospital, the Royal Children's Hospital and the Royal Melbourne Hospital where they provide free legal advice to patients. 

Since 2012, IMCL lawyers have given free legal advice to more than 330 clients on-site at the Royal Women's Hospital.  

IMCL's Acting on the Warning Signs project with the Royal Women's is a pioneering program in health-justice partnerships. Through this project, IMCL lawyers provide legal advice and train front-line health professionals to identify patients suffering from family violence.

People are almost twice as likely to ask their health or welfare practitioner for legal advice than they are to seek a lawyer. 

As a trusted source, health professionals are well-placed to hear disclosures from patients and they can assist by identifying issues that have a legal element, which may not have been apparent to the client. 

An evaluation conducted by IMCL found that over 42 percent of its clients would not have seen a lawyer, had it not been for the free legal service IMCL provides through its health-justice partnerships. As one client said:  

"I would not have seen a lawyer if there was not one at the hospital. Financially I wouldn't have been able to afford a lawyer and ... the stress of going to more appointments while I was pregnant." 

Through health-justice collaborations, clients are connected to legal services early, when a good outcome is more likely, - such as avoiding a custodial sentence. 

The Ozanam Community Centre is a local service with which IMCL collaborates. It is a drop-in centre in North Melbourne with support services for individuals experiencing or at risk of homelessness and social exclusion. 

IMCL provides free drop-in legal advice every fortnight at the Ozanam centre. The co-location of services enables lawyers to work together with drug and alcohol counsellors, housing support and mental health workers to assist a client's legal issues that are interlinked with other problems in their life. 

Legal-social partnerships such as this aim to minimise a client's engagement with the justice system by addressing early the underlying contributors to legal issues. 

Furthermore, finalising a legal issue can improve a client's health and wellbeing. For instance, through its on-site legal advice service at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, IMCL assisted a client with an application to vary an intervention order. 

The client had struggled with serious self-harm arising from a history of family violence. When the court granted the variation of the intervention order, the client could return home and a cause of the self-harming had been addressed. 

At the 40th anniversary party, former IMCL lawyer (and compère of proceedings) Kate Lawrence told the gathering: 

"Systemic, seismic, meaningful change is always a possibility and community legal centres are essential for a good justice system and a good democracy." 

As IMCL's creative collaborations show, CLCs have survived and grown because their innovative approaches to providing legal services are a cornerstone of access to justice. 

From Elif Sekercioglu 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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