The New Leaf

By Georgia Briggs

georgiaBriggsEvery so often in life, things just don’t work out. Call it karma or fate, or as my Aunty refers to it “sometimes life is just s**t, and it applied to so many things!” but unfortunately you’re stuck with it, and it’s how you manage it that really matters (character building I believe it’s more positively known as).

If you’ve been following my column (thanks!) then you’ll note that quite a few of my last ‘life not going my way’ moments have knocked me for 6. While I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m feeling much better about those in the individual sense (I’m not, the Dream Job called and gave me the feedback I requested yesterday and the wound reopened tenfold), I’m here to tell you what I did to take a little bit of control again.

Most post law students would find that there is a big hole left which use to be filled with endless amounts of study. Once you finish you initially fill that hole with activities such as seeing friends, sleeping, working or just rolling around on the floor of your house going “I can do this because I don’t have to study anymore!” However after a while, you really think “gosh, what do I do with my time now?” I believe the technical term is you realise you’re a little bit ‘bored’. Oh, and if this doesn’t sound like you, give it time…

Well, I, being the person not willing to roll any longer, applied for my Masters. SURPRISE!

It’s a Masters of Teaching. DOUBLE SURPRISE!

I have been volunteering at a local primary school for some time, and, as my friend put it to me when I told her about the Masters, “those kids got to you”. I’ve always had a bit of an interest in teaching, I did year 10 work experience in teaching (and journalism… next academic venture to resurface?) but didn’t pursue it after being sucked whole-heartedly into Law in years 11 and 12 Legal Studies.

Now it’s back, and I’m learning about something that is so not law it’s almost funny! While there’s plenty of academic research to be had, I’m being asked (keep in mind it’s my first assignment, in my first class in my first semester) to make a ‘multimodal artefact’ about what kind of teacher I want to be. It can be “a powerpoint slide, a rap, a collage, a video, a short essay, a role play etc”. Hell yeah! While it is hard work to be in a degree again, and the concept of “oh right, I can’t put this off” is starting to finally hit me, I couldn’t be happier that I’ve taken a complete left turn into something I’ve always been interested in but never taken a chance on.

It helps knowing that if it all feels too much I can always stop, but it feels so, so, so right to have gone in this direction, and now the legal job hunt punching me in the face the last month or so, doesn’t feel quite as bad. I urge you to do the same, but with anything that you’ve thought “hmm, I’d like to do this” but never gotten around to. I can’t actual explain the relief of taking the chance on this and having it work so well (even if it is only the first few weeks), and having it inadvertently balance much of my other turmoil with regard to post law school life and the job hunt.

Use your new free time to do something totally awesome and different! New language, juggling, landscape architecture. Rolling on the floor isn’t going to be interesting forever, especially not for smart people like yourselves!

P.S I immediately bought a stamp that says “well done” with a happy bee on it. 😀 It’s necessary – I’m a teacher! (well sort of)

I’ve been a volunteer firefighter, technically since I was 3 years old…


…because my dad is the Deputy Captain, but I really fought my first fire at 17.

I was in a fire last week on night shift, doing back burning to keep the overall fire contained.

It’s quite rewarding but it can be a bit scary, particularly when you’re going into the fires, rather than standing out of them.

When you go in you don’t know if a tree is going to fall, if something is hot, if something is going to ignite or how fast fire is coming if it’s at a distance.

My dad is a big part of it, but actually so is my mum and both my brothers, it’s a real family affair!

Legends of Law School is a monthly column by Georgia Briggs

The Critical Lawyer

by Phoebe Churches



By this I don’t mean the senior partner you had during articles or clerkship or the Magistrate looking at you through semi-closed eyes during your very first appearance.*

I am talking about Critical Legal Theory in practice.

I came to the law after a lengthy stint in social work, working with some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community. Accordingly at law school – I was a bit of a fish out of water as a left, feminist, progressive type – and I really dreaded the impending requirement to complete core subjects such as Company Law.

When the first seminar of Company Law rolled around, I sat listlessly contemplating the weeks of boredom stretching out into eternity before me. The lecturer lost no time discussing the first piece of assessment. Ho hum. How would I wade through this miasma of…wait, what? A surprise. It was an essay, no, that’s not at all surprising – but the focus of the assignment was like a bolt literally out of LEFT field. The topic of that essay was: ‘It is often said the law is politics. This statement is applicable in corporate law as well. Explain and discuss this statement with particular reference to Australian case law and legislation’.

My paper read something along the lines of: it is an absolute legal fiction that the law is blind and it certainly does not operate in a social vacuum; on the contrary – the law works to preserve and entrench social and political inequality. So, one award winning Marxist analysis of the theory of the corporation and the doctrines of separate legal personality and limited liability later – my faith in the potential for the practice of law to be a tool for social change was restored. I was encouraged that I could perhaps become a happy lawyer, ducking the angst and depression so endemic in the field by making a meaningful contribution towards social justice.

So, how can working for social change make you happy? The practice of gratitude has been championed by the mindfulness movement for some time as a way to help bring happiness and balance into our lives. If you are looking for ways to keep perspective and feel gratitude, I recommend spending time with people who have had it much harder then you. Critical Legal Theory looks at strategies for getting the law to work towards social change and more socially just ends.

My journey was not a long one. I came from the community sector so I didn’t have a Road to Damascus moment. However my journey did go via the Critical Lawyers Handbook which must be a roundabout to Damascus St for many. In any event, regardless of what else I may do, I cannot foresee a time when my life will not be anchored by work in Community Legal Centres or not for profit services for the most vulnerable in our community such as the ASRC.

What will you do?

[*] The one who scratched red marks and annotations over every single word in your letter of advice or contract clause.

[†] I really did win the Company Law prize that year.

[‡] If you find this notion challenging or resonant and would like to explore further – here is a select reading list to get started: Hugh Collins, Marxism and Law (1984) and R.W. Connell, Ruling Class Ruling Culture – Studies of Conflict, Power and Hegemony in Australia Life (1977).

Arna Delle-Vergini


When did you know that you wanted to be a lawyer?

A long, long time after I became one. I was young and restless and no matter where I was in my life, or what I had achieved, I was always searching for the next Troy to burn. At first I thought this was because I had potentially chosen the wrong career, but eventually I realised it was actually a pattern throughout my life, and what I really needed was to learn the simple art of contentment. It sounds easy, but it is one of the hardest disciplines I have ever tried to master and I am a long way from achieving it. The best I can say is that I am committed to trying.

What attracts you most to the profession of law?

I am one of those people who loves through acts of service. Even when I was a teenager I was volunteering in social justice projects.  I believe it is incumbent upon all of us to contribute to our community, and the more skilled you are, the greater your commitment should be. To be able to do this as a means of earning a living is an incredible privilege. People might say that makes me an idealist. I don’t believe I am. I just have an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the rare opportunities that I have had and a strong feeling that if you are given a gift (which is essentially what our privileged existence is), you really must share it.

What was the single moment, case or event that you feel defined you as a lawyer?

The defining moment of my career was, oddly enough, not even related to my practice. I undertook a subject in my Masters of Laws because the times of the class suited me. The subject was called ‘Dealing with High Conflict People in Legal Disputes’ and it advocated a completely different style of lawyering to the adversarial style that I was trained in. To say that this subject annoyed me would be putting it mildly. In fact, I wrote a 10,000 word, fairly defensive, paper on how adversarialism was a necessary prophylactic for lawyers. I actually received top marks for the paper but it was a Pyrrhic victory because by the time I had finished writing, I didn’t even believe in my own thesis. By the time I finished writing the paper, I was a convert to therapeutic jurisprudence and I haven’t looked back since.

What would you say are the hazards of this profession?

In my view, the hazards of this profession relate solely to the personal cost of practice. Most of us in the profession know by now that lawyers are disproportionately overrepresented in the professions for depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction and marital breakdown. There are a lot of theories as to why this might be and trying to work out the answer to this puzzle keeps a lot of us in the ‘health and well-being for lawyers space’ gainfully occupied. I don’t have the answers. If I had the answers, I wouldn’t have started a website to promote dialogue about the meaning behind being a lawyer with a strong emphasis on health and well-being. Essentially, being a professional should not cost you your health or your well-being, or, indeed, your life. It’s pretty simple really.

If you could only give one bit of advice to new lawyers, what would it be?

There is a quote that I love: ”The first forty years of childhood are the hardest”.  I mentor many law graduates and they always shift a little uncomfortably in their seats when I share this with them because they’re often still in their twenties.  I deliberately share that quote with them though because they need to understand that it’s okay not to have all of the answers now. They’re not supposed to. Nor will they ever have all the answers for that matter. I don’t have them. Neither do our (legal) heroes, the judges and justices of the higher courts. New lawyers need to take the pressure off if they want longevity in their career. They expect to have ‘arrived’ the moment they get their practicing certificate. Unfortunately, that’s effectively where their journey starts. The process of becoming a good lawyer is a long one. This is why I ultimately focus so much on self-care and how you conduct yourself as a lawyer. I’m sorry but knowing and applying the law is the easy part. Being a ‘good lawyer’ though is a real challenge and one that is likely to be a life-long career journey. This is the next level of lawyering and it is arguably more of a challenge because lawyers are only trained in what the law is and/or how to apply the law, but not how to be an actual lawyer.

If you had your time again, would you choose to practice in law? If not, what else would you choose to do?

I did a Law/Arts degree at Melbourne University. My focus in Arts was Classics. In fact, Classics has been a life long passion. I traveled to Italy in my twenties to get my copy of Roberto Calasso’s “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” signed by the author himself. He was a little surprised, but mostly delighted, that his novel had so much appeal to a lawyer as his father was a Law Professor. I still occasionally dream about being a classicist and spending a life attending archaeological digs all around the world but I daresay, if I had my time again, I’d make the same choice. Firstly, I dislike heat. Secondly, I am afraid of snakes, spiders and scorpions. That rules out probably 99% of all digs. I think this is why sometimes I like to toy with the idea that there are parallel universes. It makes me happy to think of myself somewhere in another Universe living the life of Indiana Jones, but I would never go so far as to give up my comfortable little patch of green on Earth for it.

How can one distinguish himself or herself as a legal professional?

Be yourself. After all, as Oscar Wilde so aptly puts it, everyone else is taken.

Arna Delle-Vergini is a Victorian Barrister, accredited mediator and a legal coach. A therapeutic jurisprudence convert late in her career, Arna has developed a particular interest in practitioner health and wellbeing. In 2013 Arna convened – a website she hoped would promote dialogue amongst lawyers about the meaning of their professional role in a dynamic legal climate. She also explores her interest in practitioner health and wellbeing through her Masters, her role as a member of the Victorian Bar Health & Wellbeing Committee, and by regularly facilitating training and workshops with new and emerging lawyers.

At the moment, I get youth allowance and I volunteer at interesting places


At the moment, I get youth allowance and I volunteer at interesting places like the food co-op, women’s legal centre and the youth law centre. I’ve just started working full-time so it is going to be weird having money. On one hand, I’m not that excited to be graduating at the end of the year, and I’m super content to be living in the virtual reality of adult life. On the other hand, I am keen to see where graduation takes me, where I will be in a completely different place this time next year.

Legends of Law School is a monthly column by Claudia McGarva

How a bottled snail changed my life

by Jessica Heyes


Yes, the bottled snail case is the negligence case we all learn about in first year law.  But I’m talking about something of much greater relevance to our daily lives as practising lawyers.

I’m talking about BottledSnail Productions, named from that famous case. BottledSnail is a company created by and for lawyers with an ingenious purpose: to support initiatives aimed at addressing the high levels of mental illness in the legal profession.

It does this in two ways. First, it provides creative opportunities for lawyers and promotes work-life balance in a profession that tends to struggle with that concept. Second, it supports the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, whose objective is to promote psychological health and safety in the legal community.

As a pianist and singer from a young age, I have always been involved in various musical projects.  But it’s safe to say that my involvement in these kinds of activities has decreased fairly steadily during the ten years I have been practising law, and especially now that I am a parent too.

So I was ecstatic to discover BottledSnail in early 2014, just in time to secure a place in the cast of the cabaret The Secret Life of a Lawyer – and then to join the cast of the musical Parade, which is on at the Malthouse Theatre from 23-28 February 2015.

When I tell people about my involvement with BottledSnail, they usually say: ‘How on earth do you have time to do that?’

And of course they are referring to the inherent tension between extra-curricular activities on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the expectation on many lawyers that they will be available to work 24/7 if need be – that it is rarely acceptable to say no to a partner or a client – and of course to the relentless challenges of caring for a small child.  And they are right – taking on something more than that seems like madness.

The fact is, the way I see it, I don’t have time NOT to do it.

There are lots of reasons why:

  • It’s so refreshing to do something that doesn’t have anything to do with legal skills. I think many of us lawyers have our identities and self-esteem bound into our job descriptions. It’s liberating to take on a challenge out of left field and find that we can be more than just lawyers. Studies have shown that achievement across a range of areas is more conducive to a fulfilling life than expertise in one very narrow area.
  • When you are used to a rational, analytical, critical way of thinking, it’s incredibly freeing to be able to make creative choices. How do I want to portray this character? What kind of tone do I want to produce when I sing that note? What do my instincts tell me is the right movement for this scene? When will the audience laugh or cry? None of these questions have answers that you can find in a judgment or textbook.
  • It’s fantastic exercise for the imaginative, emotional parts of our brains. Few things in law (especially corporate law) can move us the way that words and music can.
  • It builds our resilience to times of stress. Just being committed to something outside of work means gives us more perspective on work dramas – our well being isn’t so dependent on what is happening in the office.
  • Making a commitment to a project like this forces us to regularly take time away from work. It’s a great incentive to try and get everything done by 6pm instead of letting things drag on until 9pm (well after the law of diminishing returns has generally kicked in).

You don’t need to be an artsy type to participate in BottledSnail’s projects.  There are dozens of jobs associated with any production and opportunities to use all types of skills.

And I know from experience that all the challenges and sacrifices associated with being involved in Parade will pale into insignificance in that electric moment just before the house lights go down and the drum roll begins.

BottledSnail presents the Tony award-winning musical PARADE, at the Malthouse Theatre at 7pm from Monday 23 – Saturday 28 February 2015.  More information and tickets available at:


Value added volunteering

by Phoebe Churches

phoebe blog 4

Here we are – the last (for now) in this series of posts about building capacity in a small Student Union Community Legal Service. You may recall from previous posts that I have been ruminating on the best possible model to increase the capacity of our tiny legal service to meet its mission as a Community Legal Centre. Law students are asking almost daily if we can take them on and it is impossible to ignore the potential benefits. If we can get the model right, student volunteers could meaningfully contribute to public policy and law reform submissions, develop website content and self-help resources, or write a regular column in Farrago. In terms of case work assistance, student para legal volunteers can conduct intake interviews; do case research and even some basic drafting under supervision.

However, in the context of the preceding posts about ensuring we do not exploit free labour or offer a substandard learning experience to volunteers, the question remains – can we harness the resources of local education providers to deliver an academic context to service delivery and make sure students are well prepared and properly equipped to make the required commitment and observe their ethical duties?

The primary focus of academic clinical programs is the development of practical lawyering skills in a closely supervised environment. The student has the advantage of both practitioner and academic supervision.  According to the Griffith Law School, Clinical Legal Education Programs Strategic Plan 2003 ­2007, the typical model is:

An intensive small group learning experience in which each student takes responsibility for legal and related work for a client (whether real or simulated) in collaboration with a supervisor. The student takes the opportunity to reflect on matters including their interactions with the client, their colleagues and their supervisor as well as the ethical aspects and impact of the law and legal processes.

First and foremost – this model puts the educational experience of students at its core.

When I first started recording my thoughts about this capacity building project I mentioned that the Melbourne Law School (MLS), part of the University in which the tiny legal service is located, did not run a clinical program. Within a few days of that post going live, I was contacted by the (then relatively) new Director of the MLS Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI). She alerted me to the development of a varied and exciting public interest law clinic, through which clinical legal education subjects would be delivered. This could be the answer to our prayer for adequately experienced and well oriented student volunteers who are already inducted into the ways of good legal practice. It may well slot the final piece of the puzzle into place. If the MLS can provide this practical experience to its students with all the attendant educational focus and instruction, perhaps we can draw our volunteers from a pool of students who have successfully completed one or more subjects in the program.

The National Pro Bono Resource Centre defines student pro bono in the following terms:

‘student pro bono’ is where students, without fee, reward or academic credit provide or assist in the provision of services that will provide or enhance access to justice for low income and disadvantaged people or for non­profit organisations that work on behalf of members of the community who are disadvantaged or marginalised, or that work for the public good.

While students at Melbourne University are unlikely as a class to be ‘disadvantaged’, they are nonetheless generally on low or no incomes and will not otherwise have ready access to justice on a fee for service basis. The spread of matters presenting to the service also offer good opportunities for law students to be exposed to real world legal issues in a fairly contained way. There is no shortage of good reasons to have a small but lively group of volunteer law students, but the problem with past ad hoc attempts to recruit and maintain paralegal volunteers was that many simply had no idea of the commitment required and frequently failed to attend rostered shifts or cancelled with very short notice. More troubling, many appeared unaware of the critical ethical and other obligations within a legal practice. These things need to be taught and learned – but our tiny service is just not well enough resourced to do that from first principles. If we are able to recruit students who have completed a clinical subject as part of their studies – we may have solved that problem.

There is considerably more the service could do with greater resources and there is a substantial demand from students for volunteering opportunities. It is difficult in this context to ignore the obvious fit between increasing service capacity and the use of volunteers. The time certainly seems right – the Student Union is currently reviewing the best model for a centrally coordinated volunteer program and this too could inject considerable resources into the establishment of a functional program in the Legal Service.

So where do we begin? Literature on the subject suggests that program establishment is aided by starting small and informally. However a strategy needs to be developed for moving from the informality that enables establishment in uncertain times to the more structured and integrated approaches that are likely to foster longer-term sustainability. At this stage the plan is to establish a small steering group to garner the expertise and experience of others in this area and to get student input into the opportunities they would like to be offered. We will need to develop a suite of policies detailing our obligations with respect to the supervision of students; confidentiality; and conflicts of interest. Finally, a volunteer manual needs to be developed and a set of appropriate precedents generated. Perhaps our inaugural volunteer or intern can work toward this? Any takers?

Is it exploitation or value added work experience?

by Phoebe Churches


So far my thinking about how to sustainably develop the capacity of a tiny CLC in a constantly contracting funding environment has led me to confront my fears of contributing to the decline of the modern welfare state. My next question in this context, is whether a volunteering model must necessarily further the destabilisation of the Government backed welfare system, or whether there is a legitimate place for ‘free labour’ in capacity building.

I practiced as a social worker for some 25 years prior to entering the legal world and during that time I did my fair share of supervising social work students on fieldwork placements in various work places. The idea of getting another pair of hands on deck was always exciting in a chronically under-resourced community sector. However over time it became apparent that significant resources are required to deliver the level of supervision and support to enable a proper and positive learning experience for these students. Sometimes it meant that, rather than building capacity, a single vocational placement could consume about the same resources as it provided to the service. How to avoid this zero sum game? How do we get something for nothing without the spectre of exploitation coming into the frame?

I have come to the conclusion that it is the use of unpaid labour to provide work which would otherwise be undertaken by the same person for money, given the opportunity – which is exploitative. Roemer defines capitalist exploitation as ‘A is exploited by B when B takes unfair advantage of A’s situation which results from a lack of access to resources’. Translated into the legal volunteering scenario we might say that a CLC exploits its unpaid staff when they attract the unpaid labour due to a lack of opportunities or access to entry level paid positions in the same sector.

Similarly Susan J. Ellis in her book From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Successful Volunteer Involvement – without ever mentioning the ‘exploitation’ word – recommends that an organisation contemplating taking on volunteers must ask itself:

given such a “utopia” in which your organization could pay for anything needed, would you still involve volunteers in some way and, if so, why?

This is, of course, not the only definition of exploitation – but it nevertheless serves as a reasonable method of distinguishing those who volunteer altruistically and/or to receive something in return (feels good, experience, education etc) and those who are effectively trapped into free labour.

So using unpaid workers – either volunteers or interns – who only provide their labour for nix in the hope that they will land a paid gig at some point AND where there is no possibility of that eventuating would seem to be flat out exploitation.

Accordingly, where students or very new graduates completing their PLT are not in a position to do the same work for remuneration – is it exploitation to use their unpaid labour? Is money the only type of exchange for labour? They get experience and a range of benefits in return for their efforts; however we must take care to ensure that labour and non-salary benefits stay in balance.

What is needed to make volunteering a positive and value-added experience for the volunteer?

The University of Melbourne Student Union Advocacy Service runs two very active student volunteer programs. One provides an exam support stall which delivers material support (including stationery, water, chuppa chups and calculators) and advice and referral (for students who turn up late and are denied entrance to the exam or who have been caught with unauthorised materials). This program makes a material difference for students at the remote Royal Exhibition Building examination venue who otherwise would have no access to such resources. The other volunteer program provides peer support for students facing the university’s Course Unsatisfactory Progress Committees (CUPC). These student volunteers undertake training to enhance their understanding of the CUPC system so they can brief students attending the hearings and take meaningful notes in the meetings as well as provide a level of emotional support to the students attending, who are frequently highly anxious and/or distressed. The small Advocacy Service – without a major injection of funding – could never provide these services to this extent without volunteers.

What’s interesting about both of these volunteer programs is that they attract a very large number of students every semester, notably many international students and also those who may be shy or somewhat socially isolated. These students get both hands on training and direct personal experience of conversing with strangers; communicating sometimes complex information simply and accessibly and empathically dealing with often quite confronting emotions in others. This is a very rare and valuable opportunity for these students, and one they generally grasp with both hands. Additionally, the volunteers work together, in different teams and pairs and many form lasting friendships after the program. For international students wishing to forge cross cultural relationships and socially isolated domestic students who may find it difficult to meet others in day to day student life – this experience is often a turning point.

Can we offer something to law students in a clinical setting which might offer the same benefits? Or else, what other experiential currency can we trade in to ensure their unpaid efforts are not exploitative?

Next time: Value added volunteering – Clinical Legal Education; internships or volunteers – what’s the difference and how do they compare as models?

Hegel’s Dilemma and the creation of the welfare state

by Phoebe Churches

brick wall

The German philosopher Hegel argued in Elements of the Philosophy of Right that all members of civil society are owed a duty by the state to protect their moral equality. In fact modern liberal democracies are characterised by the fundamental principle that their citizens should be equal.

Yet how can this be when some citizens clearly have more money, more opportunity and more resources than others? Well, the Government needs to help level the playing field, of course.

Enter the modern welfare state. This compromise of socialist and liberal values was probably more about avoiding open class conflict than solving Hegel’s dilemma but – until recently at least – all developed nations have also been welfare states to a greater or lesser degree.

What happened?

Neo-Liberal Economic Policies and the destabilisation of the welfare state

Hegel’s classic liberal democratic welfare state has buckled under the weight of neo-liberal economic policies. Increasingly across developed nations market forces have displaced citizen’s rights to equality. The state has unburdened itself of its welfare responsibilities in favour of market forces and I suggest that this now poses a crucial test of the legitimacy of the modern state into the 21st century.

In the UK David Cameron’s conservative government has introduced the notion of the ‘big society’– a policy framework which has also been referenced by Tony Abbott in Australia. Effectively the outcomes in the UK of ‘big society’ have been – among other things – that in excess of 60,000 public servants have lost their jobs, overall income inequality has grown exponentially and – very relevantly to this issue – there has been a greater than ever burden on volunteers to provide services previously provided by paid staff funded by government.

This type of neo-liberalism ultimately inspires an individualist and depoliticised construction of volunteering. ‘Big society’ style policies consign civic responsibility to the individual citizen – predominantly those willing or forced to volunteer their labour to assisting the disadvantaged. By plugging the gaps left by government people are diverted from the dismantling of the welfare state that ensues when austerity – or in the case of our recent budget – ‘deficit crisis’ banners are hoisted by the government.

So what does this mean for access to justice? Dennis Nelthorpe is Executive Director of Footscray CLC and has many years of experience in the access-to-justice game has suggested that at any given time, on a conservative estimate, around 500 000 Australians are unable to access legal assistance primarily because of the cost. So we are not covering the field on accessible legal services by a long stretch. Yet what does the Government contribute? Dennis provides the following illustration:

Using a commonly stated figure of $250 per hour to value legal work, if we apply this to just one Melbourne CLC where I work, the output of paid legal staff is $3.8 million and volunteer lawyers and pro bono contributions account for an extra $525,000 each year.

This CLC gets around $750,000 in government funding, plus $250,000 from other sources, and yet on these figures deliver four times that amount in legal services alone – not to mention the legal education and law reform services that most CLCS provide on top of that.

The Productivity Commission in its draft report into Access to Justice Arrangements in Australia notes that a number of issues may present particular challenges for people in accessing legal assistance, including language, cultural background, socio-economic circumstances, poor literacy and education or mental and physical wellbeing. Unfortunately it is also true that many of the same people will also be at increased risk of experiencing legal problems and/or they may have more complex needs spanning criminal and civil issues.

In the face of this unmet need and the furious back peddling of the Government away from taking responsibility for assisting these individuals to uphold their legal rights and resolve their civil disputes – how do we plug the gap?

Next time: Volunteering: Altruism, valuable experience or exploitation?
Last time: Volunteering and access to justice – the good, the bad and the ugly. 

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