Renewed anger

I’ve just returned from a few reinvigorating days at the 500 strong National Community Legal Centres Conference in Adelaide, Australia, where I was a keynote speaker, writes Julie Bishop.

It was inspiring to see how much can be achieved in a stable policy and funding environment like Australia  where energy and resources are not wasted constantly realigning with the latest new ideas and trying to prove value for money to ever shrinking funders. I was struck by the cohesion of the advice sector there. It allows for the exchange of ideas and fosters a dynamic approach to service provision. Advice providers in Australia can use their resources to move forward and find creative ways of meeting need. A stark contrast with the UK where so much of our energy is wasted worrying about where the next funding is coming from!

There they take a truly holistic approach to legal advice. Grants are provided for an integrated mix of casework, public legal education and policy activity.  Each streams is informed by the other and together they work to achieve an agreed policy direction. This strategic mix of casework, PLE and policy are designed to ensure that the outcome of the Community Legal Services programme is preventative in effect. That is, where trends are identified arising from individual casework, CLCs individually or as a network, depending on the issue, develop activities to address the trigger or underlying cause of the emerging trend. For example, it was recognised that a growing number of taxi drivers were seeking legal support related to practices in the taxi industry. As well as developing a policy document aimed at better regulation of the industry and provided to the regulator, a specialist service was established to provide expert assistance with this problem area. It’s interesting to note that the international crisis in mortgage lending didn’t hit Australia as badly as elsewhere because policy work that arose similarly from CLC casework had already been done and its recommendations implemented that tackled bad lending practices.

Attending the conference has rekindled my anger at the ludicrous reforms in the UK and the wanton disregard for the impact on ordinary people in the name of saving public money. Here you become immune to the continuous attacks on the most vulnerable people in the community because the onslaught is so relentless.

Australia has a similar legal system to the UK. But the Australian context is very different too, most notably the affect of the huge distances between relatively small population centres and the specific need of indigenous Australians. As a result CLCs are often the only legal service available to remote communities. They also work closely with aboriginal people, particularly women. It was good to hear some of the speeches delivered in Aboriginal languages like the welcome from Auntie Josie, an elder of the Kaurna People, on whose land the conference was taking place.

Not fair
A speaker from the USA suggested ‘That’s not fair’ should be the catch cry of Law Centres as they stand up for the dispossessed. Let’s take this up in the UK!

One speaker referred to Law Centres as ‘weather makers’. He pointed out that while a lot of what we do is reacting to the storm we can make our own weather too. For example by groundbreaking case law – ‘Small places doing big things’. This happens in Law Centres in the UK all the time but we take it for granted. Look at the case won by Streetwise Community Law Centre which has held that, while still being private entities, academy schools are subject to judicial review and so fair practices. Law centres report that since this case, academies are more aware of their obligations and are prepared to negotiate over admissions rather than impose a blanket rejection of pupils.

A speaker from New Zealand said that Law Centres in NZ need to promote ‘network value. and make better use of it. Although individual organisations, Law Centres share a network which creates a value way beyond just the sum of its parts. They share experience and information, support each others’ cases and campaign for justice. In the UK, we work to maximise this potential.

The Australian Attorney General (Chancellor), and volunteer at North Melbourne Legal Centre, spoke about the need to show the impact of Law Centres and the work they do. Their government wants to invest funding where it will have most impact. Law Centres’/legal advisers’ every day victories often go unnoticed. She recommended that we should blow our own trumpets more often.

Many of the discussions at the conference rang bells for me.

  • The need to encourage pro bono work, as a complement to funded services, not a substitute.
  • The need to promote ADR where it’s appropriate and not a cheap alternative to legal advice.
  • The need to target services at the most needy people while publicising the impact of the cases to gain the maximum impact..
  • The need for self-help services for those who can use them.
  • The need to go beyond legal advice, for example when a client is legally evicted but still needs housing.
  • How competitive tendering for funding can turn into rivals organisations that previously worked collaboratively.

I came back energised and absolutely certain that Law Centres will hang in there and survive. We have to. Otherwise who will help our clients?

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