Community Legal Centres (‘CLCs’) work to improve the lives of our clients and potential clients, who are some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Our clients include people facing multiple sources of disadvantage such as homelessness, mental illness and financial hardship. Since their inception in the early 1970’s, CLCs have understood that improving the lives of the disadvantaged cannot occur simply by providing individuals with legal assistance and advice. It requires an approach that seeks to address the systemic sources of disadvantage through community legal education and law reform work. In doing so, we are attempting to stem the source that causes the disadvantage in the first place. We aim to help a broader range of people more effectively through one law reform activity.
Our three broad areas of work – case work, community legal education and law reform – are interrelated: assisting individuals through case work enables CLC lawyers to identify laws, policies and practices that adversely impact their local communities and clients. One way of reducing the adverse impact of particular practices may be to educate clients and potential clients about their legal rights through community legal education. Another way may be to undertake policy and law reform work to address, at a systemic level, the problematic issues identified through individual case work.
Our law reform work involves lobbying government and policy-makers to improve the legal system, to ensure it is accessible to everyone in our community. The Centre’s law reform activities include writing submissions, holding face-to-face meetings with politicians and public servants and appearing before parliamentary committees.
Some of our law reform work is undertaken in direct response to requests from government. For example, a particular department may send us a consultation paper and ask for our feedback. Other activities are driven by our knowledge of what’s happening for our clients in areas such as Family Law, Domestic Violence, Employment Law and Discrimination Law. The Centre is a strong advocate for change in these areas when we see client after client struggle to pursue their legal rights as a result of the way the law is written, or how it operates in practice. Our law reform activities aim to provide our clients with a voice, so they can have a greater say in the laws and policies that affect their lives.
Overall, advocating for law reform allows the centre to utilise the experiences of our clients to fight for systemic change aimed at reducing legal disadvantage for all women. This work goes hand-in-hand with the Centre’s Community Legal Education work, aimed at increasing each individual’s understanding of their legal rights and obligations.
Through community legal education and development, CLCs aim to empower our client base to understand their legal rights and voice their concerns directly to law and policy makers with our support. However, where an individual has a mental illness, has to focus on where they will sleep each night, or is under significant financial pressure, these circumstances often leave our clients with little time or energy to participate in democratic processes. Through our law reform work, CLCs seek to represent the voices of our clients and make their interests known to the broader community and law makers.
CLCs believe that law reform and policy work should not solely be within the means of well resourced corporations who can frequently lobby government to make changes beneficial to their interests. We firmly believe that it is the democratic right of people facing poverty and social disadvantage to be heard. Law reform work undertaken by the CLC sector has played a central role in effecting changes to laws that impact the disadvantaged, such as laws relating to infringements, family violence, discrimination, and credit and debt.