: You are never too old 
for community justice

You are never too old 
for community justice

Virginia Bell

On tap, not on top - TindaleCover art from David Neal (ed): On Tap, Not on Top: Legal Centres in Australia 1972–1982 (LSB, 1984)
© Bruce Tindale
The Alternative Law Journal grew out of the community legal centre (‘CLC’) movement and it is fitting as we approach Fitzroy’s Legal Service’s 40th anniversary that the Journal should devote an issue to the anniversary and to a critique of the CLC movement in settled middle-age.

My recollections are of the early days of the Redfern Legal Centre (‘RLC’), which opened its doors some five years after Fitzroy in 1977. The impetus for RLC’s establishment came from a group of very talented academic lawyers at the University of New South Wales’ Law School. Fitzroy provided the model. This journal — then under the less ambitious masthead, the Legal Service Bulletin — was influential in providing a forum for the exchange of ideas among legal academics and others associated with the emerging CLC movement. As Jude McCulloch and Megan Blair point out in their historical overview, the seeds of the CLC movement can be seen in the ‘politically turbulent 1960s’ and the movements for social and political change that stemmed from those times: the Vietnam moratorium marches, the ‘second wave’ of feminism, the freedom ride and gay liberation. I share Julian Gardner’s memories of the excitement and stimulation of practice in a CLC in those early days.

From the outset, there has been debate about the extent to which law reform and policy work should prevail over casework. As the articles in this issue demonstrate, that debate continues to flourish. Understandably, priorities change over time. The early days of the CLC movement in New South Wales coincided with the Report of Mr Justice Nagle into the state of the prison system.1 The Report made sober reading. It revealed systemic abuses, including the use of extreme physical violence as a means of controlling ‘intractable’ prisoners. At the time, sentenced prisoners did not have access to legal assistance and abuses had largely gone unreported and unremedied. Against this background, RLC became active in its advocacy for prison reform and in conducting litigation on behalf of prisoners.

Twenty Years of Fitzroy Legal Service: A look back for a look forward - John LynchCartoon celebrating 20 years of the Fitzroy Legal Service, illustrating John Chesterman, ‘Twenty Years of Fitzroy Legal Service: A look back for a look forward’, Alternative Law Journal (1992) 17(6)
© John Lynch
Ultimately, and primarily as the result of representations by RLC based on the volume of its prisoner casework, the Legal Aid Commission agreed to set up and operate a prisoners’ legal service. This was a good outcome. Access to legal advice and assistance is an important check against a return to the unsatisfactory practices of the past.

RLC moved on and developed new priorities. These included a focus on the interests of the victims of crime. Over the course of my professional life, 
I have witnessed some true advances in this area. The police, the prosecuting authorities and the courts have all become more sensitive to the strain experienced by complainants in their involvement with the administration of criminal justice. In New South Wales, the provision of support services, the availability of CCTV and appropriate waiting facilities for complainants have contributed to lessening the distress of court appearances. So, too, have reforms to the law of evidence, including the protection of confidential communications and the statutory provision requiring trial judges to reject questions of a humiliating or belittling character. CLCs contributed to the debate surrounding the introduction of these reforms, which operate to preserve fair trial principles while also seeking to ensure that complainants are treated with appropriate respect.

The distinctive feature of CLCs is their pursuit of a reform agenda. Getting the right mix of policy work and casework is a difficult balance. The development of specialist expertise through a solid casework base is important to the quality and credibility of the policy work.

In his article on the future of CLCs, Peter Noble identifies high staff turnover as a problem confronting CLCs. In the same article, he places emphasis on the need for CLCs to give ‘meaningful expression to the passion of employees’. I agree. CLCs should not become overly concerned about staff turnover. While it is necessary to have access to the skills and experience of senior lawyers, CLCs’ strength is likely to come from regular injections of the passion and commitment of young practitioners. There are many former CLC lawyers who continue to make a worthwhile contribution in government service and in the private profession.

Peter Noble is critical of those who hold ‘rigid view[s] about what an orthodox CLC should look like’ and of the ‘unreasonable rejection of pro-bono resources’. I share his sentiments. A development that few of us would have predicted in the early days of the movement has been the partnerships between CLCs and some of the large firms. This strikes me as a development that CLCs should warmly embrace. It has permitted relatively small Centres to promote important test cases. Looking back, I would say that in the early days we were far too reticent about harnessing the skills and goodwill of the many lawyers in private practice who are motivated to contribute their professional skills to public interest litigation. 
CLCs remain ideally suited to the identification of areas of need that can be usefully addressed by a combination of public advocacy and litigation. They should make imaginative use of pro-bono resources.

It is not easy to be associated with a movement that is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary. I always like to emphasise the relative youth of those of us who were involved in the establishment of RLC.

The Honourable Justice VIRGINIA BELL AC of the High Court of Australia worked at the Redfern Legal Centre for seven years, from 1978 to 1984.

© 2012 Virginia Bell


1. New South Wales, Royal Commission into New South Wales Prisons: Report and Recommendations (1978).

(2012) 37(1) AltLJ 2
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