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Community Law News Summer 2012

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What’s on the Federation’s radar for 2012?

2012 is promising to be a big year for the Federation with a range of initiatives to improve the justice system and CLC services either underway or in the pipeline. You can read a two page summary of our strategic plan here and below is a sample of what’s ahead.

 

Pay equity decision welcomed but must be fully funded

The Federation welcomed the historic decision by Fair Work Australia to recognise gender based pay inequality in the community and social services sector and order 19 - 41% increases to the relevant award rates to be phased in over 8 years. These pay increases will go some way to ensuring the future sustainability of the CLC workforce.

The significant challenge facing CLCs is implementing the decision. Unless the pay increases are fully funded (including both government and non government funding components), CLCs will be forced to reduce already stretched services to fund the pay increases. The Federal Government has committed to funding its “share” of the increases but the Victorian Government to date has only committed $200 million over four years.

The Federation will be working with VCOSS and Jobs Australia to assist CLCs to implement the decision and the transition to the new award. The Federation is also working with the Department of Justice to cost the impact of the decision on Victorian CLCs. For more information from VCOSS on the decision, see http://vcoss.org.au/wordpress/?p=407

 

Review of legal assistance services

The Federal Government recently announced its review of legal assistance services, covering CLCs, legal aid and Aboriginal legal and family violence services. The review is required under the terms of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services and must be completed by 30 June 2013. The terms of reference are broad, and involve assessing whether the Agreement is meeting its objectives which include enabling Australians to access justice and in particular assisting disadvantaged Australians to successfully resolve legal disputes at the earliest opportunity. The Federation welcomes the opportunity to participate in the review and believes that CLCs are well placed to demonstrate the value of their services including services that focus on prevention and early intervention. The Federation will work with the National Association of CLCs and member CLCs to participate in the review over its course.

 

Highlighting the justice gap: unequal access to justice in Australia

The Federation, in partnership with the NACLC and our counterpart state and territory CLC peaks, will be conducting a national campaign in 2012 to raise awareness of the justice gap for Australians – the gap between the legal assistance services needed to help people resolve legal problems in an appropriate and timely way, and the services that current funding enables us to provide. The campaign will be advocating for increased government funding to address this gap. We’re currently in the research and planning phase and will be launching in May.

 

CLC excellence initiatives: leadership and accreditation

A key part of our Strategic Plan is driving CLC excellence and two major components of this, accreditation and leadership training, are underway. We are working with the NACLC to implement the National CLC Accreditation Scheme in Victoria. The Scheme involves supporting CLCs to meet agreed national quality standards relating to CLC service delivery and management. So far, 22 of the 49 Victorian CLCs have completed their self assessment, with more to come shortly. We are working with Victoria Legal Aid to explore replacing aspects of other CLC compliance and accountability with the Accreditation Scheme and are seeking funding to implement the next stage of the Scheme; CLC site visits.

For a few years, a number of CLC staff have been inspired after participating in leadership courses run by Innovative Knowledge Development (www.ikd.com.au). This year, with IKD Director Jil Toovey’s generous pro bono support, we are running our first CLC specific leadership course. Demand for places in the first round was high and 20 CLC managers and staff have now completed the first 2 days of the 5 day course. There was a real sense of energy and excitement in the room as these CLC leaders explored different ways of tackling a range of challenges facing CLCs. The course involves a project component where groups will address issues such as how to recruit and retain excellent staff in CLCs and how to tap into learning from outside the CLC sector which would enrich CLC practice. A second course will be offered later in the year.

Participants in the first CLC Adaptive Leadership Program

 

Responsible debt collection by local councils

Partnering with Footscray Community Legal Centre, we’re investigating the high number of local council debt matters – over 5,000 a year – being brought in the Magistrates Court.

Almost all of these matters relate to councils suing for unpaid rates. Local government laws provide councils with an automatic “charge” over the property for any unpaid rates, meaning that if the property is sold, the council gets its money in priority to other creditors. Even better for the councils, the legislation provides that councils automatically accrue “penalty interest” on the unpaid rates – a rate higher than commercial investment rates.

So if the law protects the council’s rates debts in a such a favourable way, why are they suing ratepayers in such great numbers? Anecdotally, we are told that it is extremely rare for councils to force people to sell their homes because of unpaid rates. So there seems to be little tactical advantage to councils suing for these debts. The council has to pay its lawyers and court fees upfront to bring the action, which are in turn added to debt – sometimes doubling it. Many of the cases we’ve investigated so far involve genuine financial hardship from ratepayers – people who have been paying their rates but have struck misfortune, through losing a job or health issues.

Our work with Footscray CLC will explore constructive ways to resolve these rates debts at an earlier stage, avoiding unnecessary litigation and promoting fair debt collection practices.

We have met with the Municipal Association of Victoria and Victorian Local Governance Association and will be convening a roundtable of key stakeholders to discuss the issue and possible solutions, including improved financial hardship policies.

 

Reports due out on taxi driver legal issues and national coronial reform

We will be launching two significant policy reports over the next few months. Our joint Taxi Project with Footscray CLC has been researching the legal issues affecting taxi drivers and identifying recommendations to reform the way taxis are operated and insured, aimed at protecting driver working conditions and preventing legal disputes. Our national coronial reform project has been working  to establish a ‘joined up’ Australian coronial system that is sensitive to the bereaved, and that learns from past deaths in order to prevent future avoidable deaths. Our reports on both these projects will be out soon.

 

Smart Justice to expand

Punitive criminal justice reform continues to dominate the law reform agenda in Victoria and there are strong signs Victoria’s prison expansion will place significant pressure on the state’s finances. Our Smart Justice project promotes understanding of effective, humane and evidence based solutions to crime problems, debunking myths around crime. This year, we’re expanding the project with a range of new factsheets and improved communications. Watch www.smartjustice.org.au for developments.

 

Law reform made easy

Participating effectively in law reform and policy processes should not solely be within the means of well resourced corporations who lobby government to make changes beneficial to their interests. The Federation firmly believes that it is the democratic right of people facing poverty and social disadvantage to be heard in these processes - directly where possible or through organisations that work with them and can represent their perspectives and interests. With funding from the Legal Services Board, the Federation has started working on a toolkit to help CLCs, other non profits and community members understand and participate more effectively in law reform processes. The toolkit will be accompanied by a training program.

 

Visiting 49 CLCs in 48 hours to celebrate the 40th anniversary of CLCs

Over the years we’ve heard well worn stories from CLC pioneer Simon Smith about how he and Tim McCoy in 1987 visited every Victorian CLC in 24 hours (there weren’t so many CLCs then). This year, we are setting a new challenge; to visit all 49 Victorian CLCs in 48 hours - all to celebrate the 40th anniversary of CLCs in Australia. Yes, it was back in 1972 that Fitzroy Legal Service first opened its doors, and despite claims from Springvale Monash Legal Service and others to being the first in 1971, we’re going with 2012 as the 40th anniversary. Stay tuned for more information on the celebrations and look out for the CLC 40th anniversary edition of the Alternative Law Journal due out shortly.

 

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Making Rights Reality: access to justice for sexual assault victims with a disability

Federation Executive Officer Hugh de Kretser, disability commentator John McKenna and Public Advocate Colleen Pearce at the Making Rights Reality launch on 24 February.

 

Victoria’s Public Advocate, Colleen Pearce, acknowledged the Making Rights Reality as a unique and groundbreaking project, at the project’s launch on 24 February.

Making Rights Reality aims to increase access to the justice system for people who have been sexually assaulted and have a cognitive impairment and/or communication difficulties. It aims to increase reporting and prosecution of these crimes and consequently increase deterrence and crime prevention.

Ms Pearce noted that “addressing violence against people with cognitive impairments is a pressing human rights issue” and one which the Office of the Public Advocate is “deeply concerned about”. The vulnerability of people with disability to sexual assault has been widely recognised, as has been the very low rates of reporting these crimes to police and the even lower rates of prosecution.

Making Rights Reality enhances existing services to help overcome barriers to justice. The service provides clients with crisis care, counselling, advocacy, legal information and advice, and support through the justice process, including police investigation, prosecution and crimes compensation processes. Communication support, attendant care or transport are provided as needed to ensure access.

This program is a two year pilot service in Melbourne’s South East region. There is a strong focus on data collection and evaluation with a view to modifying and expanding the pilot across Victoria in the future.

The project partners at the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Victoria), South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA) and Springvale Monash Legal Service.

The project has been made possible through contributions from the William Buckland Foundation, the Reichstein Foundation, Portland House Foundation, Victorian Women’s Trust, Australian Communities Foundation, the Victorian Government and other private donors.

For information on the service contact SECASA on 9594 2289, secasa@southernhealth.org.au or www.secasa.com.au/index.php/secasa/47/461

 

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Discussion Paper examines filicide and parental separation

Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria has just released a Discussion Paper on filicide - the killing of children by parents – when the parents have separated.

‘”Just Say Goodbye”: Parents who kill their children in the context of separation’, was written by Dr Debbie Kirkwood. It outlines international literature and analyses previously unreleased data from the Australian Institute of Criminology’s National Homicide Monitoring Program together with case examples of fathers and mothers who have killed their children.

While such deaths are often described in the media as ‘inexplicable’, this new research suggests important gendered differences between fathers and mothers who kill their children after separation. For example, fathers are more likely to have previously been violent towards their partner, and to kill children as spousal revenge. In some cases, there may have been no prior violence against the children.

The Paper therefore suggests that while separation is widely recognised as a time of heightened risk for violence against women, it also needs to be understood as potentially entailing a significant risk of violence against children, particularly when there are risks to the mother’s safety.

The Discussion Paper is essential reading for people working with separating parents, or in family violence and child protection, and for anyone seeking to develop a better understanding of why these deaths occur and how they might be prevented.

Copies of the Discussion Paper can be ordered from the DVRCV website at http://www.dvrcv.org.au/wp-content/uploads/JSG-Order-Form-DVRCV.pdf

 

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Justice Profile - Karen Keegan

Karen Keegan is the Principal Lawyer and Program Manager for the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS), based in Wodonga, and the President of the North East Law Association (the North East branch of the Law Institute of Victoria). The HRCLS is auspiced by Upper Murray Family Care, also located in Wodonga.

 

How did you get involved in CLCs?

I came to the law later in life after 24 years service in the Army. I studied at Monash University and while I was studying, I commenced volunteering at CLC’s, with Eastern CLC, Fitzroy Legal Service, Monash Oakleigh Legal Service and Springvale Monash. I moved to Sydney and completed my College of Law with a placement at the Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern. A job came up there as a Criminal Law Court Advocate and I was kept busy doing criminal law court work and prison visits.

 

How did come to work in the country?

I grew up in country Queensland and moved around a lot with the Army. I wanted to live in country Victoria and a job and some land came up in the North East so I moved to Yackandandah and worked in a firm in Myrtleford. I was always interested in continuing to work with CLCs and in 2007 I joined the HRCLS when we received some funding for a new Victorian outreach position.

 

What are the most common legal issues you help people with?

Debt is the big issue. We see many people struggling with debt and facing bankruptcy and foreclosure. Family law issues, particularly children’s issues make up a significant percentage of our client base. We have a family lawyer seconded to us from Victoria Legal Aid and she is extremely busy. Employment law is also another common area of law, particularly issues around small businesses paying workers incorrectly or telling them not to come back tomorrow. We do our best to help with these issues, referring some people to Jobwatch, Fair Work Australia and helping others ourselves.

 

What’s on the agenda for the Hume Riverina CLS?

We’re currently doing a legal needs survey looking at who we reach and how we reach them. We are currently doing a range of outreaches in NSW and Victoria. We’re examining demographic and service data to see the best way to deliver our outreach services, and we plan to look at new technology like Skype based services. We’re also running a Family Law Focused Clinical Education Program in partnership with Charles Darwin University and will take 28 students this year for 2 week placements during second semester.  As well as boosting our ability to help our clients, the students learn a lot and get exposed to the work of a CLC and to rural and regional practice.

 

How did you get involved with the North East Law Association?

We had a saying in the army “don’t volunteer for anything”. Helen McGowan recruited me to the association and I was voted in at a meeting I wasn’t even present at! But I enjoy the role, particularly in being a link between the Law Institute and the members. Recruitment and retention in the country is an issue but we’ve got some new firms starting up recruiting new lawyers. Succession is probably the biggest issue with a number of sole practitioner firms who will face some challenges when they want to retire.

 

Do you waterski on the river on your lunch breaks?

Not quite. Cycling is my thing, but there’s winter sports, water sports and good food. We have a saying up here that the only thing you can’t do locally is go surfing on an ocean beach. Or go to a Collingwood Game.

 

What’s the best thing about working in the law in the country?

The pace of life in the country is the best. While we are very busy delivering legal services, we do so at the pace of the community and our clients. Ease of parking, lack of traffic, good food and wine, clear blue skies and fresh air are also ‘best things’ about working as a country lawyer.

 

Do you have any advice for lawyers contemplating the move?

I would encourage those interested to come on up and see what it is like. The complexity and intensity of legal practice is the same, coupled with the lifestyle balance that you can have, make it an ideal work environment, for young and not so young lawyers.

 

What’s different about working in a country CLC compared with a city one?

The biggest impediment for me is that I have to travel to Melbourne to attend a range of professional activities, this involves significant travel and time away from the office. I would like to be closer so that my staff and I could easily access after work professional development activities and also contribute to working groups, seminars, RRR days more regularly.

 

If you could change one thing about the justice system, what would it be?

Convince the government to put more dollars into the CLC sector, to enable the good work of CLC’s across Australia to continue.

 

Have you made it into any of the films that have featured Yack in recent years?

No, but I have a red kelpie and I am hoping that if ‘Red Dog II’ becomes a reality, then I have the brand new star ready to go.

 

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Federation urges Government to fund Victoria’s Review of Family Violence Deaths

The Federation, together with Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, Women’s Legal Service Victoria, Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention & Legal Service, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and 7 other Victorian community organisations, has written to the Attorney-General, Robert Clark, expressing extreme concern about the lack of ongoing funding for the Victorian Systemic Review of Family Violence Deaths.

The Review, the first of its kind in Australia, was established in 2009 but has been unfunded since July 2010. The Victorian State Coroner, Judge Jennifer Coate, told The Age that the Coroners Court wishes to continue the Review but will be required to reconsider its capacity to do so if recurrent funding of $250 000 is not provided.

As DVRCV’s new Discussion Paper (above) indicates, there have been a number of high profile Victorian cases in recent years where women, children, and sometimes men have been killed by a member of their own family. The Review is proving invaluable in understanding the contexts in which family violence deaths occur, recommending how such deaths can be prevented in the future, and providing greater understanding of risk factors and best practice risk management for family violence more generally.

The 12 organisations - all members of the Review’s Reference Group - believe that the Review is not only an important aspect of Victoria’s integrated service response to family violence, but also acts as a resource for other states and territories developing similar strategies to prevent family violence. The Review is therefore helping to join up justice for not only Victorian but all Australian women and children.

 

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First grad from CLC Law Grad Scheme starts at Footscray CLC

Our first law graduate in the scheme, Parvathi Suriyakumaran, completed the program in August last year. After an overseas travel break, she was immediately snapped up for a community lawyer role with Footscray and Wyndham CLCs.

 ”We knew from her placement under the Law Graduate Scheme that she had a lot to offer the people of the Western suburbs,” said Footscray CLC Manager, Denis Nelthorpe, “The experience she gained from her rotations, along with the CLC specific training she received under the scheme  made her ideal for the job.”

The current new lawyers in the scheme are continuing their training program this year, including attending relevant sessions of the Victoria Legal Aid New Lawyers training.  The partnership with VLA has grown over the past months to include a six month secondment of one of the VLA New Lawyers, Lauren Hodes, into the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic at PILCH.  We received an excellent evaluation of the program from both Lauren and PILCH, and are very pleased to announce that VLA will be seconding another of their new lawyers into a CLC from September this year.

The two graduates in the 2012 intake have already immersed themselves in the program.  Erin Buckley has completed her practical legal training and will be admitted in March. She continues to volunteer extensively at Flemington Kensington CLC and in August will commence her year-long contract as a lawyer under the Scheme.  Our other 2012 graduate, Lee Carnie has recently commenced her practical legal training following the completion of an internship at the Federation where she was involved in drafting submissions to the Equality Law Consolidation and the National Human Rights Action Plan consultations.

The Federation will soon be seeking CLC applications to host Lee and Erin, and the VLA New Lawyer. This is a great opportunity for CLCs to have an enthusiastic, fully qualified, high quality new lawyer working with them for up to 4 months. We will be recruiting for our 2013 law grad positions in around June/July.

 

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Would you like to take time off to research a systemic legal issue?

The Community Legal Centre (CLC) Fellowship is your chance to take time out from your case work and advocacy to look in depth at a legal issue that affects your clients and the broader Victorian community.

Established in 2003, the Fellowship is awarded each year to one CLC worker with suitable qualifications and experience.

As part of the Fellowship, Victoria Law Foundation provides up to $40,000 to your CLC to back-fill your position for three to six months. Often the Fellowship involves some travel in Australia or internationally to see how other organisations are working to address a similar legal issue.

Apply now

Applications for the 2012/13 Fellowship close on Wednesday 2 May 2012, so now is the time to start planning your project and application.

The Fellowship is open to CLC workers with more than two years continuous involvement in the CLC sector, either as an employee or a volunteer.

All applicants are encouraged to contact Erin Dolan, Grants and Awards Manager on 9604 8100 to discuss project ideas. The application form is available at www.victorialawfoundation.org.au where you can also look at reports from past CLC Fellowships.

 

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Protective Services Officers: Are your Rights on Track?

If you were at Flinders Street or Southern Cross train station at night over the last week, you might have seen the new transit Protective Services Officers (PSOs) on the platforms. These armed guards are the result of the Government’s 2010 law and order election promise to put two PSOs on every Melbourne metropolitan train station and major regional stations over the next three years.

No-one disputes the right to be and feel safe on public transport. But that doesn’t justify introducing armed guards with semi-automatic weapons and police-like powers, after just 12 weeks of training and at a cost of $212 million dollars over the next four years. Debates about transport safety must be based on evidence, not fear. This view was expressed by the Auditor-General in his 2009 report on Personal Safety and Security on the Metropolitan Train System. In that year, crime statistics released under FOI revealed that 116 stations were assault free in  that year while the latest Victoria Police Crime Statistics show that reported crime on public transport has decreased by 4.9% from 2009-2011.

Your Rights on Track is a new community information project backed by over 30 community organisations who are concerned under-trained PSOs might actually make trains more dangerous, especially for vulnerable groups like young people and those with mental health issues. Rather than making us feel safe, these newly minted armed recruits are making us feel decidedly less safe. There are real community concerns that PSOs armed with semi-automatic guns with both quasi-police and ticket inspector powers – but with less training and experience than police – are potentially a real safety risk, especially for vulnerable people.

Your Rights on Track is keeping our community informed of their rights so that people know where to access information and advice and the complaints process should they need it. We’ll also provide feedback to the Government, Victoria Police and the public on our clients’ interactions with the PSOs.

Our Facebook page gives people a way to understand their rights, report back on PSOs and make them more accountable. There’s also a useful fact sheet for  young people.

For further information contact Michelle McDonnell at the Federation.

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Attorney-General’s Community Law Partnerships Pro Bono Networking Event

The Attorney-General’s Community Law Partnerships program was launched in October 2005.  The aim of the program is to grow pro bono partnerships between community legal centres and law firms. A networking event was held on 30th November at which representatives from CLCs and law firms were able to mingle and share information about their respective organisations.  Robert Clark MP, Attorney-General and Minister for Finance, attended the event where guest speakers from firms and CLCs discussed current partnerships, challenges and benefits.

Saskia Weerheim (Peninsula CLC), Attorney-General Robert Clark and Victor Harcourt (Russell Kennedy) at the Community Law Partnerships Pro Bono Networking Event.

 

Mr Clark praised the program, offering the following comments:

“The partnerships between CLCs and private law firms have been invaluable as a learning exercise and as a resource-building exercise and the feedback from both sides of the equation is extremely encouraging as to what is being achieved.  Being a lawyer is not just a job – it is a profession in the traditional sense of the word.  We as lawyers have been imparted with skills by the community through the resources of the community and in a sense we hold those skills on trust to serve the community. Those many individuals who have offered their services on a pro bono basis have provided an invaluable service to the community and particularly to those most in need of help. We as a Government are working to promote pro bono services through, for example, amending laws to make it easier for Government and corporate lawyers to offer those services. On behalf of the Government I want to offer my thanks for all the great work you have done and I look forward to continuing to work together with CLCs and others involved in pro bono work over the years ahead.”

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