Helen Campbell leaves the community legal sector after 40 years’ service

November 2023

Helen Campbell began her work with the community legal sector as a student in the early ‘80s. In the decades since, Helen has made an immeasurable impact on the various community legal centres she’s worked with, and on the sector as a whole. As she moves on from the sector, this in-depth interview explores some of Helen’s work, stories, and advice for other community legal sector workers. 

Helen Campbell

Helen's long career in and around the community legal sector

While studying law at the Australian National University in Canberra, Helen joined a group of students running a student legal referral service on campus. When she moved to Sydney for College of Law, she jumped into volunteering at several community legal centres. As a young practitioner, Helen’s first job was at the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) in Redfern. After a day's work there, she’d regularly volunteer in the evenings at Redfern Legal Centre, Marrickville Legal Centre, and the Women’s Legal Service. She also got involved on the management committee at Marrickville Legal Centre.

Helen worked at the ALS for a few years, including through 1988, and found it an exciting time, particularly the protests and actions against Australia’s bicentennial celebrations organised by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists and their allies. 

Helen’s interests quite quickly shifted to the needs of women and children. This shift triggered a move to the Aboriginal Children’s Service to focus her work on family law and child protection, which were missing from a criminal law focussed practice.

In those days, practicing DV [domestic violence] law was a very different thing because the police weren’t interested at all. It was a private matter, something to sort out with family and community. If you wanted protection, you’d have to make your own application for a restraining order and you’d be in court unrepresented. Redfern Legal Centre established a DV Court Advocacy Scheme, with volunteer solicitors going along to help women who had made their own applications.

Helen spent a few years working at Women’s Legal Service NSW in the early 1990s, before becoming Principal Solicitor at Central Tablelands and Blue Mountains Community Legal Centre (then known as the Elizabeth Evatt Community Legal Centre). At the time, Blue Mountains was the only community legal centre west of Parramatta. Working from an office in Katoomba as the only solicitor at the centre, Helen did outreaches at Lithgow and at Springwood on alternating weeks. She coordinated the local DV committee and ran the DV list at the local court.

There aren’t a lot of available volunteers in the country, I know a bit about the struggles of small and regional services. I was always on duty over the holidays. I was taking emergency calls, because Christmas is the peak time for DV crises.

One year, I managed to get a few weeks off and thought to myself “I could actually decide not to do this again. I could decide I’ve had my fill of listening to people’s misery over the Christmas holidays.”

Helen left that role, went to work at the NSW Ombudsman, and got involved in the 1993 federal election campaign, volunteering for the Labor candidate for Macquarie, Maggie Deahm. The campaign was successful and Helen worked as a political staffer for three years.

It was a great experience, great fun. We’ve all heard horror stories about what happens in Parliament House, but nothing like that happened to me. I think possibly one of the reasons I wasn’t preyed on is that I’ve always been out. I think I was quite scary. The guys could see that I wasn’t someone to hit on. What I did get a heap of was, “you’re a hard-faced bitch,” to which I’d respond, “If a guy does the same thing, you call it leadership.”

I was brash and confident, loud and left. And gay.

I was really lucky because when I first got the job with Maggie, I said “I can’t work for you if I have to be in the closet.” I said she had to let me be out, and she had to back it.

Maggie Deahm lost her seat at the following election, so Helen found herself out of work. She reached out to her community legal sector colleagues and got a job doing community education at Hawkesbury Legal Centre, before becoming head of the Consumer Telecommunications Network – a membership-based advocacy organisation for access to telephones, now known as ACCAN – for 6 years.

The membership included lots of disability groups, people in rural, regional, and remote (RRR) areas, Aboriginal people, people on low incomes. It was the era of the privatisation of Telstra. We were trying to prevent the sale of Telstra, and, if it was going to go ahead, ensure that there were consumer protection laws baked into the terms: the right of everyone to have access to standard telephone service, untimed local calls, etc.

We won some battles, lost others. It was the same time as the internet was arriving. I said to them then, “because of the way tech is developing, if you sell Telstra now you will have to buy it back in 10 years’ time because there is no private competitive model which will get everyone what they need: access to the same platform across Australia.” That came true: now it’s called the NBN.

In 2002, Helen returned to the community legal sector – this time at Redfern Legal Centre – where she was Executive Officer for eight years. Helen received a medal for the Order of Australia for her work at Redfern.

It was terrific. Redfern Legal Centre is so iconic. It was just pumping. Such an energetic space to be in, and such a place. We were in the old town hall, there were always people coming and going. We had people coming in with their legal problems, while the Aboriginal Ladies’ Bootscooting Club was bootscooting upstairs. It was so integrated with the local neighbourhood, a real neighbourhood centre.

Helen left Redfern for Women’s Legal Service NSW in 2010, where she has been ever since.

I’d always had this big interest in feminism and DV laws, and a particular interest in working with Aboriginal women – which I’ve been honoured to be able to do throughout my career, and that matters a lot to me.

In her time at Women’s Legal Service NSW, Helen has led the organisation’s shift into the technology space: looking at technology-facilitated abuse, as well as using technology to expand forms of service delivery. Women’s Legal Service NSW was the first to offer legal advice via telephone – which was considered scandalous at the time and opposed by the Law Society. The innovative online support ‘Ask Lois’ was also Helen’s idea.

Helen’s voluntary contributions to women’s justice and other organisations

Over the years Helen has been an active volunteer at organisations within and adjacent to the community legal sector: on the CLCNSW Board from 2003 and Chair 2007-10, member of the Council of the Energy and Water Ombudsman, and Deputy Chair of the NSW Legal Assistance Forum, to name a few. Helen has also been long associated with the Women’s Justice Network, a mentoring program for women leaving prison, and Lillian’s, a refuge for girls aged 12-17 who are survivors of child sex abuse and family violence.

Community organisations are messy beasts. The strength is the diversity and the difference of views, flexibility, and opportunities for innovation. The weakness is that we’re all humans. Feminists can fight like cats in a sack.

Helen’s reflections on the strengths of the community legal sector

When asked what initially attracted her to the community legal sector, Helen focuses on its radical roots and capacity to change systems:

I was always politically radical. I saw myself as someone with the purpose of leaving the planet a better place than I found it. I was drawn to the activist elements of community legal work.

While Helen’s career has been littered with campaigning, advocacy and law reform successes, she raises abortion law reform as a particularly important piece of community legal sector work:

Getting abortion out of the crimes act was such a collective effort. I really wouldn’t take the credit for it, it was a continuous campaign for over…forever. It had to be really carefully calibrated.

In the process, we learnt a lot about the tradability of politicians’ votes. That was something I hadn’t really got. You could visit and they’d say they absolutely agree, and then wouldn’t vote for it because they’d traded that vote for something else they wanted. That was a real lesson learnt in political tactics.

We’ve still got to keep an eye out. They keep trying to sneak things back in, like ridiculous arguments around extra penalties for killing a pregnant woman.

This was an extremely significant move forward. We need to build on that, ensuring proper access to all healthcare women need in public hospitals. Look at what’s happening in the US: The Handmaid’s Tale was basically a forecast. We’ve got to remain vigilant about keeping women’s reproductive rights.

She also speaks of the flexibility, autonomy and support she’s experienced working in community legal centres:

It’s hard to think of any other kind of workplace where you actually get so much autonomy and capacity to follow your own interests. People often talk about community legal centres as flat structures, without many opportunities for promotion. That’s true in a hierarchical sense, but in another sense, it’s got more [opportunities] than anywhere else. Anyone can join a management committee, and there’s no barriers to access taking on the wider world. You might not get paid for it, but you’ll often be backed to do it. A lot of my voluntary roles aren’t paid, but my management committee is supportive and has said “yes, do this in working time.” You’re not locked into your job 9-5.

You’ve got to do a bit of everything, everyone has to. Nobody is going to do your photocopying, wash your dishes. Nobody has a PA or secretary. Everybody has to do what’s needed, and that contributes to a really flexible way of working – an innovative, adaptable way of working.

Helen appreciates community legal centres’ focus on working alongside communities to respond to need as it emerges.

We go where the people are, have outreaches, create partnerships with women’s health centres. It’s sensible. If a woman is suffering violence, has been assaulted, a women’s health centre is where she goes for help. So, we put a lawyer there, and the bloke won’t even know she’s seen a lawyer.

Lots of community legal centres create strategies that work for them in their own communities – being informed by lived experience is really important.

The community legal sector’s past and future

Helen reflects on the changes she’s seen in the community legal sector over the past four decades: increased professionalisation, a greater recognition of the role of trauma and being trauma-informed practitioners, better pay and working conditions.

Looking forward, imagining the community legal sector 40 years into the future, Helen says:

It’ll still be important to be located in places, in our communities. I think we’ll become collectively more adept at using online communications.

I think we’ll need to battle with artificial intelligence, and now is not too late to start. We are building another patriarchal artefact. Pay attention, as AI is not a feminist friend.

We will have other new frontiers to confront. Protection of privacy in an online world will be huge – I can imagine all kinds of battles. I can imagine government institutions trying to abolish cash, and that is a fight community legal centres will have to take up as that is our last privacy around money.

When asked what advice she’d give a newcomer to the sector today, Helen doesn’t hesitate to respond: 


Beyond fun, Helen suggests young practitioners get involved in the community, volunteer, and join management communities:

It’s great for a young practitioner to volunteer at a community legal centre. You get such a range of experience, and so many phone-a-friends: if you get stuck at work you can ring up someone you met at vollie advice nights for help.

It’s also great for young practitioners to get involved with community legal centre boards. Based on what I learnt in the early days at Marrickville, we now have an allocated place on the Board of Women’s Legal Centre for a learner. People are all about ‘skills-based boards,’ but nobody is born with the knowledge you need. How will you get it unless you’re on a board?

The idea is to invest in women’s career development. Women’s will always have someone on the board that doesn’t yet have the relevant skills – and that’s the point. We often choose someone who’s done their PLT here and is in an early career stage. They’re on the board as a learner, until they’re not a learner anymore. Then when another vacancy comes up, we’ll bring on another learner.

And finally, on social change and feminism…

We’re still smashing the patriarchy. It’s not smashed yet, there’s plenty more to do, but we’re making good progress.

It often feels like things are getting worse, but I don’t think that’s true. A good thing about being a feminist is that there are no ‘good old days.’ You never think things were better in the 1950s, 1890s, middle-ages. I see it as an arc, and an optimistic arc of progress towards equal rights.