‘Activism’ has been copping a bit of flack recently. Back in October 2005, The Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen had a go at civil liberties groups, calling them ‘a small band of activist lawyers’ who use the phrase ‘civil libertarian’ as a ‘smokescreen intended to hide political and personal agendas cunningly camouflaged as community welfare’.
In the Spring 2006 edition of the Liberal Party Magazine, the Federal Attorney General, advocating for community legal centre reform, said ‘some centres devote valuable resources to running political campaigns and the promotion of ideological causes rather than providing legal advice and assistance to Australians in need’. He argued that ‘centres must focus on serving clients, not running private political agendas’. The Federal Government then commenced a review of community legal centre funding which is currently underway.
Last month, the Federal Treasurer wrote in the Herald Sun that police at the G20 protests were being ‘attacked again, this time by activist lawyers who contrived to send a human rights observer team…so they could intimidate and harass police officers performing their duty’. He also backed the Federal review of the ‘taxpayer funded lawyers involved’. In this context, the recent release of the joint Federal and NSW Government review into the NSW Community Legal Centres Funding Program is timely.
The review found that the program in NSW is ‘an effective use of public funds and should continue to be supported by government’. It noted that a ‘key strength’ of community legal centres is their ‘flexibility to design and develop their service delivery strategically on the basis of their knowledge and experience of target communities and their relationships with other legal, welfare and community service providers’.
The review concluded that centres should ‘continue to determine the mix of services they offer to deal with unmet legal needs in their communities’. It stated that their ‘involvement in law reform…represents an effective use of resources, delivering benefits to far more clients than through information, advice and casework services alone’.
It’s good to see the review make these findings. But they are nothing new. Centres have been providing a strategic mix of services for 35 years precisely because it is an incredibly effective means of using limited resources to address legal need and respond to injustice.
Law reform work is a key component of our service mix. We do this work because, often, the client groups we serve cannot effectively represent their own needs and interests to government. We advocate on behalf of our clients for a better and fairer legal system that addresses their legal needs. We have a duty to go beyond advising individual clients about legal problems to argue for systemic change that addresses injustice.
The outcomes delivered by law reform work are far-reaching. It results in important improvements to laws, policies and practices. It allows governments to hear the views of the disadvantaged, minorities and the voiceless. It contributes their perspective to the shaping of our legal system. It promotes debate and democracy. It develops jurisprudence and allows governments to better target resources to address areas of need.
This work is about better serving our clients. It is recognised in our funding agreements and we are specifically funded by government to do it. As the NSW review found, this funding is effective.
So if activism means advocating for changes to laws and practices which create injustice, then we are proudly activist lawyers.
Community legal centres in Victoria receive around $12 million in State and Federal funds under the Community Legal Service Program. This is supplemented by additional government, philanthropic and other funding. This funding is a fraction of that received by legal aid commissions and other legal institutions around the country. It is less than 10 per cent of the amount spent each year by the Federal Government alone on obtaining its own legal advice.
In return, Victorian centres provide over 100,000 advice, information and casework services to a wide range of members of the public, most of whom have nowhere else to go for help. We conduct over 300 community legal education sessions and we deliver more than a hundred law reform and legal policy projects. Community legal centres are a value for money investment.
Community legal centres are bound by strict accountability requirements. It is entirely appropriate that centres properly account to our funders on how we spend our money and what it achieves. This includes our community education and law reform work. We look forward to working with the Federal and State governments to develop ways we can better provide access to justice and improve our legal system.
Hugh de Kretser is Executive Officer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic) Inc