This blog is a record of the research, interviews, and discussions undertaken as part of the Victoria Law Foundation Community Legal Centre (CLC) Fellowship 2014/15, titled Keeping Them Honest. The Fellowship is an annual grant provided to a community lawyer to research an issue relevant to the CLC sector and the broader Victorian community. This particular project aims to review and reflect on how CLCs conduct legal casework focused on improving business and government accountability (particularly with respect to vulnerable groups).
What are CLCs?
Community legal centres (CLCs) in Australia are part of a mixed delivery model for legal assistance services, which includes legal aid (and the legal aid funded private sector), CLCs, and pro bono assistance from the private sector. Victoria Legal Aid provides much of the criminal and family law services to disadvantaged groups. It also provide civil law legal services, and grants of legal aid, in very limited circumstances.
CLCs, in turn, provide free legal services predominantly to disadvantaged communities in a wide range of legal areas, and carry out related activities including legal education, law reform and advocacy work. There are over 45 CLCs in Victoria, some generalist (location specific, providing a wide range of legal services), some specialist (subject matter specific), and some a mixture of both. Areas of work of Victorian CLCs includes infringements, tenancy, family, criminal (minor), consumer, credit and debt, immigration, discrimination, police powers and environmental law.
The aims of the project
Given limited resources in CLCs and high levels of unmet legal need among disadvantaged communities, cases that achieve systemic outcomes rather than an outcome for a single client can be extremely valuable. Such work arguably assists more people faster and saves resources. But is the sector doing this kind of work? If so – which CLCs do it well? Why? What can we learn from each other? How can we improve our practice to have greater impact? The aim of the Keeping Them Honest project is to reflect on and respond to these questions, with an emphasis on cases focused on business and government accountability (particularly with respect to vulnerable communities).
The term “strategic” refers to the practice of running legal cases with the aim of generating a broader change to the law, policy or society – either through a success in court, or by bringing to light an injustice. This does not necessarily mean through the outcome of the cases themselves, which may only be part of a broader campaign. The term “casework” intentionally broadens the scope of the project beyond litigation, to include cases run for other purposes including negotiation, regulator complaint, or alternative dispute resolution scheme complaint.
A brief outline of the project
Through the project, I aim to review current CLC strategic casework practice in Australia and internationally, particularly that aimed at improving institutional accountability, and reflect on what makes strategic casework most effective. This project will look specifically at civil cases, such as those relating to housing, welfare, consumer, debt, police accountability, and environment and planning disputes.
I will do this by meeting with Victorian CLC lawyers and other relevant stakeholders, and, in some instances, by reviewing case files and other strategic documents. I will also travel to organisations across Australia, and internationally to South Africa, Canada, the USA and the UK, to discuss how legal centres and other organisations outside of Victoria structure and run strategic casework.
The bulk of the research and discussions will take place between January and end of April 2015. Out of this I will produce a written review of current practice, together with a practical, best practice framework for strategic casework aimed at inspiring a community of practice within the CLC sector.
I am grateful to the Victoria Law Foundation for the opportunity to undertake this project, to La Trobe University for acting as host (and Mary Anne Noone in particular for her generous support) and to K&L Gates for transcription services.
Thanks also for the generous assistance and feedback of the project steering committee (in alphabetical order): Gerard Brody (Consumer Action), Mary Anne Noone (La Trobe University), Simon Rice (Australian National University), Annie Tinney (Victoria Legal Aid), and Stan Winford (Centre for Innovative Justice).