Reflections on the Victorian CLCs Symposium 2014

Note: all views expressed in this post are my own. 

On 30 October 2014, I attended the Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC) Victorian CLCs Symposium 2014. This was a one-day conference that aimed to “bring the community legal sector together to profile thinking and innovation that can help [it]…thrive.” It was a fascinating and rich day of discussions, both formal and informal.

My reflections on any work-related event have forever been corrupted by a former colleague’s great enthusiasm for the ‘three takeaway message’ rule. The rule is simple: if you attend a work-relevant event, be prepared to draw from it three key messages to be shared and discussed with your colleagues. I have found that this a remarkably useful mechanism for ensuring work attendances are meaningful for both attendee and organisation.

And so, inevitably, this reflection on the Symposium comes in a series of three themes: language, democracy and power.

  1. Language

Firstly, a brief note on the use of shared language. The rich and stimulating Symposium discussions circled around its themes of ‘community’, ‘change’, and ‘courage’, undoubtedly important in this moment of uncertainty. These words resurfaced again and again, in the mouths of advocates and bureaucrats alike, as did some of my favourites: ‘strategic’, ‘advocacy’, and ‘best practice’.

In unifying a disparate group of people, shared language is important, and this was evident throughout the Symposium discussions. It builds familiarity, and ease, allowing for quick navigation of complex ideas through a system of shortcuts. However, an over-reliance on shared words equally risks glossing over complexity and diminishing critical thinking around their content and significance. It sometimes also risks stripping words entirely of meaning, or making slippery the sentences within which they lie.

The word ‘strategic’, for example, can mean many (often equally valid) things to different people. Therefore unpicking it and contextualising is essential. The concept of ‘community’, also, is key to the sector’s work. However, the discussions around legal needs analysis in particular caused me to reflect on the challenge of defining, negotiating and incorporating the idea of community within the work an increasingly pragmatic and technology-driven sector.

Overall, the Symposium served as a pertinent reminder to use language thoughtfully, and intentionally, particularly when crossing over legal practice and jurisdictional boundaries. While there is a certain utility in gathering a broad sweep of work together under a common banner, sometimes it may be useful to particularise, and sometimes, it may be useful to depart from this language all together.

  1. Democracy

I was particularly struck by a comment made by a panel speaker about the role that CLCs play in enhancing democracy and, implicitly, the rule of law. I had not, for a long time, framed CLC work as a democratic function, or considered it in terms of the three arms of government. However, on reflection, it was glaringly clear, and I was grateful for the reminder.

Of course the only way that a legal system can operate with integrity is if it is used and tested by a representative cross-section of civil society. Of course it cannot properly function without those with strong legal claims being able to (a) identify their claim; (b) test it in a court of law; and (c) articulate to the legislature their opinion on the relevant law. This is (hopefully) stating the blooming obvious.

This simply cannot occur if the people to whom laws apply don’t know about them. This is where community legal education (CLE), a primary function of CLCs, is essential. Further, in an adversarial system, the judiciary can make its best decisions when two sides of a dispute are able to clearly articulate their positions. Where someone does not have the skills to be able to articulate their meritorious legal claim, they should be afforded the opportunity to do so by way of a competent advocate. CLCs are also critical in providing this representation to those who cannot afford it. Unfortunately, those with multiple, or ‘clusters’, of legal problems are often those who cannot afford legal representation (see, for example, the NACLC National Legal Needs Report (2012)).

Thirdly, where a law (or state function) is insufficient, contradictory, or does not reflect the wishes of civil society, then this should be able to be tested, and, particularly where it is proven to be so, brought to the attention of the legislature. This is again, undoubtedly a democratic function. It enriches citizens’ engagement with the state beyond the vote, and so the value of democracy. Again, CLCs do this work, particularly for marginalised groups. While I imagine it must be tricky to quantify this value of CLC work by way of a cost-benefit analysis it is, at least in my view, undeniably important.

This point reminded me of a recent discussion with Associate Professor Margot Young on how Canadian law provides for public interest standing, which arises when an individual seeks to challenge a government action that has broad social effects. (‘Standing’ in law is the right to bring a claim before a court). It is interesting to contrast this idea of standing with the more limited treatment of standing within Australia (including the ‘special interest’ test), and to reflect on the broader systems that govern the way that CLCs operate, and what state legal (and litigant) culture would best realize the aims of our democracy. For those interested in this topic, esteemed former Justice Michael Kirby writes an interesting article here on Australian legal resistance to public interest litigation from a  judicial perspective.

  1. Power

And finally, related to the previous point on democracy, many threads of Symposium discussion reminded me of how CLCs worked with, and were embedded within, complex systems of power relations. The idea of power is disparate and immense, and of course cannot be expounded fully here. However, it is an important one to remember when working for groups of people who are systematically disenfranchised, or disempowered, for various and often overlapping reasons.

For example, I had the opportunity to reflect on whether greater democracy emerges out of the devolution of power, and, if so, whether this is must inevitably be messy, chaotic and met with fear and resistance by those who perceive their power to be threatened. This linked strongly to the Symposium theme of ‘courage’, which was explored only gently throughout. Dynamics of power were also evident, quietly, in pragmatic discussions about funding.

The final plenary of the Symposium, on the sector’s ‘real work and worth’, showcased innovation in the sector. However Tanja Golding’s discussion in particular, of providing outreach at a homelessness shelter, touched on something universal in the CLC experience. It was, for me, a reminder of how sometimes a realignment of power can come out of the smallest things, like knowing your rights, or feeling listened to when for a long time you have felt misunderstood. This is another true value of CLCs that is real but difficult to quantify.

Julian Burnside discusses this eloquently in an article in The Conversation:

It is a powerful reminder of just what great work the Community Legal Centres do. Underfunded and under resourced, they exist in order to help people deal with legal problems, but in many cases the real help they give lies in the fact that they extend the simple dignity of listening to a person’s distress. They help rescue the alienated. I am hugely impressed with Community Legal Centres. They deserve to be better funded and better recognised for the work they do.

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