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Inside stories: The coming of CLCs

Inside stories: The coming of CLCs

By Carolyn Ford

Interviews Legal Services 


Monash University law students started a social movement in the 1970s.

In the early 1970s, the people of Melbourne’s burgeoning south-eastern suburbs got Victoria’s first free legal service to help them with their legal problems.

As they sat in the modest waiting room of the Monash University Legal Referral Service (LRS) (actually the kitchen of an ancient farmhouse at 5 Osborne Avenue), waiting their turn for help with debt, neighbour disputes, car accidents and insurance, neither they nor the Monash University law students assisting them had any idea it was the start of a national network of community advisories that would help hundreds of thousands of Australians in future decades, and also the start of clinical legal education. 

Legal historian Professor Simon Smith wrote about the coming of the community legal centres movement in Breaking Out: Memories of Melbourne in the 1970s, edited by Susan Blackburn and published in 2015.

There was no widely accessible system of legal aid in the 1960s, although the LIV and Victorian Bar ran a Legal Aid Committee, which paid lawyers to assist eligible clients. There was the Public Solicitors Office and the Legal Services Bureaux but their remit was limited, certainly none provided general advice, enabled self-help, promoted law reform or offered a night-time service.

But as society changed, there was enormous legal need. Baby boomers wanted to do things differently and this desire coincided with Monash University’s new law faculty’s innovative culture, one which boldly engaged in making the law more accessible. 

“We needed to find a more accessible way to deliver legal advice. The Springvale legal service reflected the new university’s brief, which was to ‘do it differently’,” says Professor Smith.

“A lot of the encouragement came from then Dean Gerry Nash QC. He had been influenced by goings on in the US after Watergate when the attorney-general went to jail. Law schools there improved their ethics education and introduced legal clinics where, with oversight, law students saw real clients.”

In April 1971, the Monash University LRS opened at 107 Russell Street, also the home of the Citizens Advice Bureau, quickly followed by the site at Springvale, a culturally diverse suburb near the Clayton campus in Melbourne’s southeast. 

The mix of people brought re-settlement challenges and many gave rise to a demand for legal information and advice on pensions, tenancy, immigration, debt, hire purchase, deed polls, police charges, family disputes and more. 

The fledgling student referral service was soon at the front line of addressing this need with a Tuesday night volunteer session. A roster of 30-odd law students was drawn up on foolscap paper and pinned to a corkboard. To meet demand, sessions opened on Monday and Wednesday afternoons as well.

Senior undergraduates were rostered to act as a conduit for the exchange of legal information. They would note down the problem and seek analysis from a supervising academic or practitioner then refer clients to legal and social agencies where they could access legal advice. It was thought this did not offend the provisions of the Legal Profession Practice Act 1958 (Vic).

A 1971 article in the Monash Reporter “Law Students Help People with Problems”, said the LRS started with a handful of law students dealing with about five inquiries a week. It quickly went to about 35 weekly inquiries, with some 85 students on the roster. 

“The voluntary work of law students enables them to gain invaluable insight into the types of problems prevalent in the community and the inadequacy of the legal system to dispense justice to the underprivileged,” the article by LRS secretary Colin O’Hare said. 

Students were happy to do the beginner legal work, keen as they were by third year to move on from theory to hands on work, according to Professor Smith, who was a 20-year-old third-year law student when he got involved. At his first session, with two foolscap pages of dot points to guide him, he fronted up at the Russell Street site. His supervisor, a fourth-year law student, however, did not. Fortunately, no clients appeared either. 

Demand continued to increase at Springvale, but it was a limited service. Relief came in December 1972 in the form of the Fitzroy Legal Service, which had lawyers giving free advice to all comers in the basement of the Fitzroy Town Hall. The no appointments, no ties model emphasised access to legal information as a basic human right.

In February 1973, the re-badged Springvale Free Legal Service (SFLS) re-opened for business, adding more night-time sessions to its hours of operation. Some 50 senior law students became involved. Clients, who were not restricted by geography, might have seen Marilyn Warren, who went on to become Victoria’s first female Chief Justice, Ian Gray, who went on to become Chief Magistrate for Victoria and State Coroner, Neil Rees, who subsequently headed the Victorian Law Reform Commission, Tony D’Aloisio who became chairman of the Australian Securities and Investment Commission or Simon Smith, who became a law lecturer, legal historian and author (and SFLS’s first coordinator, for 10 years from 1978).

Now Vice Chancellor’s Professorial Fellow at Monash University Professor the Hon Marilyn Warren told the LIJ she remembered the experience well.

“When the notice went up in the Law Faculty calling for volunteers I thought that would be a good thing to do. I could help people in need (thinking I knew a lot about the law by then).

“But the experience was very different. I came to realise that while I knew some things, I had to learn how to apply that knowledge in practice. Later on in practice I was not intimidated when conferring with clients and dealing with opposing lawyers on the phone. I had done it before at Springvale.

“More than anything I had a special sense of how being a lawyer can really help people, that was the most powerful lesson which stayed with me.”

Ian Gray, who volunteered at Springvale and also Nunawading Legal Service (now Outer Eastern), recalled the SFLS was well supported by Monash University and a great idea.

“I believed in it. I thought it was valuable and useful. The fact the university was supporting it was a great thing. I think the principle of free legal advice in the community, particularly in lower socio-economic areas, is a good one. It is fundamental to social justice. There were many who took on that role of providing legal services at CLCs [community legal centres] around that time.

“CLCs have become an entrenched part of the legal landscape in Victoria. It’s hard to imagine it without them.”

CLC-schedule-from-the-early-daysDemand for the enhanced service, which now included running cases and helping clients access assistance through Legal Aid, continued to grow. Under the Whitlam government, the Australian Legal Aid Office was established. Other legal services had started to appear around Melbourne including at St Kilda, Broadmeadows and Nunawading, the latter the first in an outer middle-class suburb. It was clear there was unmet need for accessible legal advice and assistance. Motor vehicle accidents represented 25 per cent of the SFLS’s caseload. Its “haven’t got a cracker” letter was well-known among insurance companies. Family law matters made up a further 20 per cent of the caseload. The SFLS became expert in advising on “do it yourself” divorce. Minor crime and traffic offences represented another 20 per cent. Shoplifting, commonly prosecuted by the large department stores, took up a lot of time. 

Monash law students and faculty remained at the heart of the SFLS. In 1975, in a pioneering moment, undergraduates got course credit for involvement, signalling the start of clinical legal education in Australia. Bill Shorten and Jon Faine are among thousands who had the Monash clinical experience. 

Dr Jeff Giddings, one-time Monash law student volunteer and now Associate Dean (Experiential Education) and Professor of Law at Monash, said the Springvale Monash Legal Service (SMLS), as it is now called, was the first site for what is now the largest clinical law program in the country. With more than 500 law students involved annually, it works mostly with CLCs but also private law firms, government, Vic Bar and other agencies. 

His supervisors (Jon Faine, Simon Smith) had shown him the law could be fun, and that he could contribute and make a difference. “The law went from black and white to technicolour. It became real. It’s the experience Monash law alumni most often refer to. I can still remember my first client as clear as day. It was a humbling and empowering experience,” Dr Giddings said. 

Law reform submissions, a High Court test case, duty lawyer services, publication of the Lawyers Practice Manual and community legal education followed at Springvale, which worked collaboratively with legal services at Fitzroy, West Heidelberg and Nunawading. The Springvale site is still at 5 Osborne Avenue, albeit rebuilt.

SMLS executive director Kristen Wallwork said the Melbourne origins of Australia’s CLC movement was a good example of people power for a fairer society.

“SMLS’s historical foundation and that of many CLCs is evidence of how groups of individuals can contribute to the support, engagement and a fairer society for all community members,” Ms Wallwork said.

“Since this first inception by Monash law students the movement of CLCs has grown extensively across our country through courageous advocates over the years. SMLS will look forward to marking our significant anniversary in a couple of years.”

There are now 47 CLCs, as they have come to be known, in Victoria. They are still the main providers of after-hours legal assistance. Nationally, of 158 CLCs, 25 have clinical legal education programs. 

“The 1970s at Springvale were exciting and fun. It was a very special opportunity to make a contribution. I would not have missed it for quids,” said Professor Smith. ■

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