Volunteering and Access to Justice – the good, the bad and the ugly

by Phoebe Churches

volunteer scrabble

I manage the Advocacy and Legal division of the University of Melbourne Student Union which includes a very small Community Legal Centre (CLC). When I say ‘very small’ – it is in fact a single solicitor and a legal secretary.

For a number of reasons over the last 12 months I have been contemplating the politics of volunteering. Firstly, I am just completing my Practical Legal Training (PLT) which involves a good amount of free labour in my current workplace. This sort of quasi-volunteering can create a tension between free labour and paid work which I would like to tease out. Secondly, on a fortnightly basis I volunteer at my local CLC which is almost completely dependent on volunteers to deliver its services to the magnitude it does. Thirdly I am very keen to build capacity with the tiny CLC I manage and, to this end, with a small and very fixed budget – I have been comparing the various models which provide legal assistance to those who have varying capacities to pay – volunteer driven services and self-funded models.

Self-funded services are a very attractive idea – people who cannot afford legal assistance are provided it for free funded by the profit generated by fee-paying services to individuals and organisations who can pay. Naturally this presents a challenge, and while self-funded services such as Salvos Legal are proof of concept – there is little doubt that it is a tricky balancing act at best.

The other option is volunteer supported expansion. Being located on a university campus with Australia’s premiere law school, one may expect that the academics would be beating a path to our door to negotiate arrangements to deliver clinical legal education via our service. This is the model used at Sunshine Youth Legal Centre (SYLC) – where the Victoria University law school delivers its clinical legal education program via the centre which is totally operated by those students under supervision.

However The Melbourne Law School does not operate a clinical legal education program in a CLC setting at this point in time. For this reason we are moving down the path to expansion with plans for a small intake of volunteer latter law students (from any university) by the end of the year.

Seems straight forward enough – eh?

Yes…well, no. As someone who has worked in the community not-for-profit sector more virtually all of my working life and as a dyed in the wool trade unionist – the politics of volunteering has always sat uneasily with me.

There are two aspects to my misgivings. Firstly the problem of continuing to deliver more and more welfare-state functions with fewer and fewer Government resources. It seems, the more we do for less, the more the Government gets away with slipping out the back door and making a run for it. In this context and for this reason – I am wondering if volunteers are left in the kitchen doing the washing up while the Government is happily skipping the bill.

Secondly, when people work for nothing doing the very similar things that others do for remuneration – there are a number of questions which need to be answered.

Next time: Post#2 – Volunteering and the demise of the welfare state

One thought on “Volunteering and Access to Justice – the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. Pingback: Hegel’s Dilemma and the creation of the welfare state | newlawyerlanguage

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