Ensuring the sustainability of CLCs over the next decade means ensuring that we have a workforce for the future, good governance and leadership, increased funding and resources, and resilience and capability to adapt to change.

Staff skills, recruitment and retention

CLCs in Victoria face challenges with low pay scales, fewer opportunities for progression, lack of training and development opportunities, and difficulty retaining leaders and experienced professionals. Additionally, there is a lack of relevant preparation across tertiary education providers for social justice lawyering, both restricting a pipeline of future skilled workers and requiring the sector to invest heavily in on-the-job training. Workers often move on within two to three years to higher paid roles at other legal assistance providers.

There is a clear pay disparity between CLC workers and other legal assistance providers, including staff at Victoria Legal Aid. The majority of lawyers and other staff working in the CLC sector are women, adding a gender dimension to the pay disparity issue and raising concerns about wage justice. CLC workers also have insecure work because they are often employed on a short-term contractual basis due to funding uncertainty.

It is arguable that the low paid nature of CLC work stems from it not only being undervalued by those that do not understand the importance of access to justice and the benefits to society of CLC work, but also undervalued by those who do not value work that is predominantly undertaken by women. The same arguments have been made to increase wages for workers in the broader community sector of which about 75 per cent of the workforce is women.

The social services sector of which CLCs are a part, employs 150,000 people - more than any other key industry in the Victorian economy. Community services are positioning to attract future workers and recognising the unequal gender disparity of the services professions and the disproportionate impact of low wages on the majority female workforce. Consequently they are increasing pay, conditions, training and career opportunities. If CLCs cannot also make these improvements, it will be faced with a major skills shortage in the future and lack a strong, skilled and supported workforce able to adapt to the changing environment, negatively impacting the people and communities in need of legal assistance.

The Federation has been working with the Victoria Law Foundation to undertake the CLC Workforce Survey 2020 that will provide us with a better understanding of the current CLC workforce, changing needs of the workforce and opportunities to strengthen the workforce over the next decade.

The Victoria Law Foundation will analyse and report the findings of the CLC Workforce Survey 2020 to the Federation and then we will engage in further consultation to develop a Workforce Development Strategy that will be rolled out as part of the 10-Year Plan.

Governance and leadership

CLCs often face challenges recruiting board members. Currently, many CLC boards are made up of volunteers from within the communities in which CLCs are based. This level of community knowledge and interest is vital and would be of even greater value if coupled with diverse skill sets of board members from a range of backgrounds.

Good governance is defined as the processes, policies, practices and relationships involved in running an organisation. At a minimum, it includes meeting the Australian Charity and Not-for-Profit Governance Standards. However, having skills-based and diverse governance is increasingly seen as important for having a more sustainable, dynamic and resilient organisation.

A strong, experienced and well-informed board can transform the contributions CLCs make to the sector. Good governance is critical to the successful future of the CLC sector, and to the communities they serve. Strong and accountable organisations begin with a strong and effective board.

This includes:

  1. Accountability – meeting obligations, managing finances and operating transparently.
  2. Strategy – setting long-term goals and ensuring pursuit of purpose.
  3. Resources – securing funding and other resources to support the work of the organisation.
  4. Advocacy – Representing the organisation to community, members and stakeholders
  5. Monitoring – ensuring the organisation is run as required under its governing documents and the law.
  6. Diversity – Boards reflect their communities and have the necessary skill mix required
  • How can CLCs improve skills and diversity in board recruitment?
  • How do boards continue to ensure they are representative of the communities they serve?
  • What support do CLCs need to achieve good governance and leadership?
  • How can we measure the effectiveness of CLC boards?
  • What leadership skills will CEOs and senior managers require in the future?
  • How will this be different to now?

Accreditation and reporting obligations

The National Accreditation Scheme (NAS) provides a quality assurance process that gives confidence to CLCs, funding bodies and clients that CLCs are operating according to good practice and industry standards. The NAS promotes a culture of ongoing continuous improvement across areas such as governance, organisational management and legal practice. The Federation ensures compliance with the NAS and works closely with CLCs to administer the scheme.

CLCs are also subject to a range of reporting requirements to various funders and oversight bodies, which can create duplication. Phase 2 of the NAS gave the Federation the ability to develop individualised methods for CLCs that have diverse Quality Assurance reporting streams, with the objective of minimising duplication at time of NAS Certification.

As part of striving for best practice, there may be further opportunities to streamline and integrate the NAS and other reporting obligations, improve compliance related assistance and advice provided by the Federation, or to use data provided by CLCs for multiple purposes where appropriate and where this would not compromise intended outcomes. This would allow CLCs to focus their time and efforts on providing services to the community instead of on reporting.

  • What aspects of the NAS and other reporting obligations work well?
  • Are there opportunities for improvement?
  • How could obligations placed on CLCs be streamlined or integrated without compromising the intended outcomes of the NAS?
  • Are there duplications in reporting? What are they? How could these be minimised?

Funding and resources

There are a number of complex and interrelated factors that influence the limited funding and resourcing of CLCs in Victoria and across Australia. These include lack of understanding in the community and across government about:

  • The work of CLCs and the benefits to society, which impacts on political will to support CLCs
  • How early intervention through legal assistance reduces pressure on other parts of the justice system and broader social support system, thereby reducing long-term and overall costs to government
  • Misperception that community lawyers increase justice system demand instead of reducing it;
  • The difference between CLCs and Victoria Legal Aid

Other key factors include:

  • The perception of community lawyers as ‘left-wing activist lawyers’ that create difficulties for governments
  • The role of community lawyers in advocating for policy change and law reform, and in holding governments accountable to the community and to standards of acceptable treatment, equality, justice, fairness and human rights
  • Disagreement between levels of government at the state and federal level about who is primarily responsible for funding legal assistance, particularly in the context of a restrained fiscal environment and limited government resources

It has always been the case that CLCs are chronically under-funded by governments and lack the capacity to meet demand for their services. Over time, CLCs have increasingly understood the value of diversifying funding and many CLCs have secured substantial additional funds to deliver services and programs far beyond those supported by recurrent government funds alone.

Federal funding for CLCs has been under threat in recent years. In 2017, CLCs across Australia were faced with a 30 per cent funding cut, which was only narrowly avoided through extensive advocacy by the CLC sector. The Federal Government has also refused to provide funding to CLCs for law reform or advocacy work, which is a core part of CLCs’ contribution to public debate, and a vital means of ensuring that laws do not disproportionately or unfairly impact clients.

The view that the Commonwealth Government is primarily responsible for funding CLCs has meant that the State Government can be reluctant to provide additional funding, noting however that the Victorian Government does provide core and recurrent funding to CLCs, as well as funding tied to particular services or service types and policy programs.

Victoria Legal Aid mainly administers government funding for CLCs. This funding arrangement means that VLA has direct engagement with CLCs as the key funder. Because of this, there is limited visibility of Victorian CLCs within the Department of Justice and Community Safety at the State level or the Attorney-General’s Department at the Federal level. This makes it difficult for CLCs to communicate to government at all levels about the work that they do and the value that they provide to the community.

Due to limited government funding, CLCs rely on philanthropy and temporary project-based funding to do a lot of their work, including the provision of outreach services, integrated services, community legal education, and advocacy projects.

The limited funding and resourcing of CLCs in Victoria, constant threats to core funding and lack of certainty, and the provision of temporary project-based funding, create a number of significant challenges for CLCs, including:

  • Meeting demand for services;
  • Managing resources;
  • Improving service delivery and increasing access to service;
  • Investing in capacity building and organisational development;
  • Providing long-term value to staff to build a workforce of the future; and
  • Demonstrating value to government by engaging in data collection, outcomes measurement and evaluation.

When governments announce new packages of funding for support services to respond to an issue, for example family violence or elder abuse, the CLC sector has consistently been left out. This could be for a number of reasons, including:

  • lack of understanding across government about the value of CLCs and the contribution they make to these issues
  • lack of understanding in the community about the value of CLCs;
  • lack of political will to fund CLCs due to disagreement on which level of government has funding responsibility
  • the misperception that lawyers are not best-placed to engage in early intervention work or that lawyers contribute to increasing justice system demand instead of reducing it; and
  • difficulties faced by CLCs in demonstrating to government their value and ability to achieve effective outcomes for clients.

Funding models

As population growth and widening inequality continue over the next decade, demand for CLC services should be expected to increase.

Another challenge for the CLC sector is that CLC funding is not needs-based or demand-based. This means that funding is not linked to the need/demand for services in the community, and typically falls short and lags increased need/demand. This means that when need for CLC services increases, CLCs have to tighten their eligibility criteria. In addition to this, whenever Victoria Legal Aid tightens their eligibility criteria for the same reasons, their caseload flows onto CLCs to provide assistance.

The solution to this problem in other sectors has been to move to a needs-based funding model. For example, in the education sector the Gonski review called for needs-based funding for schools across Australia.

However, a correlated issue impacting on the ability of CLCs to move to a needs-based funding model is the lack of data on legal need in Australia. The last nation-wide survey of legal need in Australia was undertaken by the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW in 2012.8 There has been limited government investment in legal needs analysis since then.

We know that CLCs are significantly under-funded and resource-constrained. CLCs need to think about why this is the case and think strategically about what they can do to address this issue together.

  • How can CLCs increase community and government understanding of CLCs and the benefits they provide to society?
  • What strategies should be pursued to sustain and improve CLC funding?
  • How can CLCs better demonstrate their value to government and other funders?
  • Should CLCs be looking at state-wide service models to improve funding?
  • Should CLCs be engaging in collective, state-wide funding bids?

Improving capacity to adapt and be resilient to change

CLCs in Victoria have learned a lot about adapting to change over the past few years through surviving the COVID-19 pandemic and responding to the bushfire crisis, and are well-placed to respond to emergency situations in the future.

CLCs have also shown that they can be open and collaborative with each other – are willing to share ideas, learn from each other, and are keen to work together to avoid reinventing the wheel wherever possible. CLCs recognise that many CLCs across Victoria face the same challenges and can work together to respond. It is this togetherness that will make us stronger in the years ahead.

To be even more sustainable in the future, we will need to learn from these experiences, take stock and engage in continuous improvement in the future. A strong, thriving and resilient CLC sector will ensure that CLCs have the capacity to adapt to any challenges over the next decade.

  • What processes and strategies can be put in place to ensure that CLCs are well- equipped to respond to change over the next decade?