Everyone’s turning 50!

With parts of the legal assistance sector now reaching 50 years old, we need to rethink how law is done to ensure it can provide timely and fair help to Victorians with legal problems.

Lynne Haultain
Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Happy birthdays!

Celebrations – like trams – come in bunches.

We are currently marking anniversaries of so many of the original community-based organisations, so it’s also a celebration of legal assistance as a sustained and central aspect of our justice system.

Happy 50th to Fitzroy and St Kilda/Southside Legal Services, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), the Victorian Ombudsman, Eastern CLC, Tenants Victoria! My apologies to any I’ve missed and thanks to you all.

50 is significant. It marks establishment and survival, experience and wisdom.

There have been many ebbs and flows over that period – so many governments, policy changes, funding challenges, community shifts. Melbourne has gone from 2.7 million to 5.2 million, from Sherbet to Hiatus Kaiyote, from the Ford Escort to EVs, and from the suburbs ending in Broadmeadows to a conurbation which extends almost round from Geelong to Sorrento and out to Gisborne.

Winding back 50 years takes us to the mid-70s – a time of extraordinary political and social change which set the tone for so much that was to come. Part of that moment was the recognition that access to legal help – like access to health care and free education – was critical in a progressive and just democracy.

Enter community-based responses, started and staffed by volunteers, passionate about access to justice. It has been a joy to celebrate the pioneers of that movement – to acknowledge their extraordinary vision, energy and determination – we are all beneficiaries.

The idea of community justice took hold and proliferated and now we have a network of almost 50 community legal centres, Victoria Legal Aid, VALS and Djirra. All levels of government recognised the value of this support and have funded these services – to greater or lesser extents - over the last half century. That these agencies now have such strong and abiding roots in our community and form such a key element in our legal system is an enormous achievement – one envied in many parts of the world. The USA for example has no such network, and access to justice there is so much more arbitrary.

We are also proud that the Victoria Law Foundation has played a useful and timely role in the development of many of these organisations. We provided initial funding for the Environment Defenders Office, the Mental Health Legal Centre, Human Rights Law Centre, Public Interest Law Clearing House (now Justice Connect) and more recently, the LGBTIQA+ legal service, to name a few.

Having said that, we are keenly aware of where we are. Our recent reports from the Public Understanding of Law Survey (PULS) present data on what so many have known for years: our legal system is falling woefully short in meeting the justice needs of Victorians. It’s important to note that the PULS focused on everyday legal issues – civil justice matters like housing, employment, goods and services, the sorts of legal problems we’re all likely to have at some point.

More than 13% of Victorians live on or below the poverty line. Currently, only 8% of households would be eligible for legal support that goes beyond basic advice. Eight percent – and most of that goes to criminal and family law matters.

We know that problems can beget problems – and many people end up with clusters of issues which are exacerbated because they didn’t get timely legal support.

A very high number of people reported stress as a result of their civil legal problem – having to move house or suffering ill health or injury. We also know legal problems can have long tails, with 30% of them lasting five years or more.

The legal assistance sector is a bellwether of social need. It was true in the 70s and it’s true today. It has responded for years to the reality of people’s complex lives and problems. It has decades of experience in responding in real time to the needs of the communities it serves. Night services, outreach, partnerships with health, education and community services. All this is about recognising the person rather than focusing on the law or the institution they’ve tangled with.

What our evidence shows however is that what we have is not enough. What we know now prompts us to rethink the way the law is done – the way the movements of the 70’s did. Together with the challenges, the PULS gives us clear insights into the capabilities of Victorians in managing the legal system.

What we see is that people don’t know there’s law in their problem. Do they need to? Or could they take the problem and be directed to law?

We know that even if people do find law, very few are eligible, particularly for help with civil problems. How do we respond to more people? More money sure, but what about tech – where can that take the sector?

We know people can spend too much time telling and retelling their story in a stressful search for the right help. Surely, we can connect people and services better?

In our recent Victorian Law Week event, Route from 66, we kicked off a conversation on some of these issues, with so many of the themes also picked up in the recently released Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership.

A person being interviewed as part of a workshop.
Lynne Haultain speaking with Cameron MacRae from Neighbourhood Houses Vic at the Route from 66 Victorian Law Week event.

At VLF we are focused on supporting the justice and community sectors to share what’s working, but also to think about what needs to come. Our current research project, Measure for Measure, explores people-centred services across Victoria to build our collective understanding of what is effective in meeting legal need – for whom, for which legal problems, and under what circumstances.

Our system is currently unable to provide timely, fair help to the vast majority of Victorians with common legal problems. This goes to the coherence of our communities, and fundamentally to the values we say we hold dear, like equity and fairness.

If we accept that 8% is not good enough, that all Victorians should have access to basic legal services, we need a fundamental change, like the one that swept the justice system in the 70s. What does the system look like in another 50 years – when community legal centres and VALS for example are turning 100? Or even 75? Will they survive? We need to figure out where we’re headed – what kind of justice we want, and how we are going to get there.

Clearly this kind of shift requires a full court press and thinking and action from all quarters – politics, policy, courts, dispute resolution, all parts of the profession and our broad suite of allies.

This may be quixotic, but we can’t leave it unsaid.

The inheritors of the 70’s generation need to embrace the knowledge, confidence and the wisdom of lived experience, and make bold decisions for the next phase.

If not now, when?

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