What makes a community legal centre?

Community legal centres are distinct within the legal assistance sector. Our movement has a unique service model and set of values, underpinned by its 50 years’ history.

Community legal centres were built by activists in response to the impact of injustice on their communities

The first community legal centres were established more than half a century ago by activists and advocates frustrated and angered by the injustices faced by their communities. They were responding to the unfairnesses of a legal system that punished poverty and difference. These first centres set about providing free legal help to people in need, and just as importantly, they used people’s stories to drive advocacy for legal system reform. In the early 1970s, groups of students, academics, youth workers and lawyers in Monash and Fitzroy began giving free legal help to people who needed it – these grew to become Fitzroy Legal Service and the South-East Monash Legal Service. A few years later, a group of lawyers, volunteers, academics, social workers, and community activists met in Redfern to explore the idea of “community control of legal services”. They advocated that everyone should be able to access justice, no matter their bank balance. In early years, Fitzroy Legal Service supported in the anti-conscription movement and advocated for better representation of young people in courts, while Redfern Legal Centre advocated for prison reform and helped defend people arrested at the first Mardi Gras in 1978.

Community legal centres support people holistically

From the very beginning, community legal centres resisted the idea that lawyers are the solution to everything. They recognised that many people’s legal issues were connected to other social and economic problems and that the best supports addressed all these challenges together. Critically, we recognised the impacts of trauma and discrimination on people’s ability to access justice. That’s why centres employed not just lawyers but social workers, financial counsellors, tenant advocates and community development workers and prioritised trauma-informed and culturally safe practice. We were doing integrated service delivery before it was fashionable or even had a name.

Community legal centres intervene early to help people avoid contact with the legal system

Through observing its many and varied failings, community legal centres have always understood that our legal and social systems could often not be trusted to deal fairly with people marginalised by the mainstream. We recognised early, that often the best thing was to help people avoid the legal system altogether (or support their exit from it as soon as possible). Early intervention, and empowering communities to avoid legal problems, have been hallmarks of community legal centre services since the beginning and explain our traditional focus on community legal education programs.

Specialist community legal centres’ unparalleled expertise delivers benefit to our sector, all legal assistance providers, and governments

The earliest community legal centres were ‘generalists’, helping people in need with all kinds of civil, family, and some criminal law problems. However, we always understood the critical importance of specialisation. The establishment of our specialist centres was driven by expertise and grounded in personal experience – women built our women’s legal centres on feminist principles, people with disabilities set up disability legal centres as rights-based services to name just some examples. We have specialist centres working in employment law, environmental justice, immigration and refugee law, social security and economic justice, renters’ rights, seniors’ rights and elder abuse, young people, issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children, public interest litigation (and others). The community legal sector’s unparalleled national centres of excellence in these areas act as a resource for the entire legal assistance sector (and often for governments).

Community legal centres are unified and connected to one another

Community legal centres are independent organisations that are connected as a community legal sector movement. The unity and connectedness of the centres that make up our movement ensures a network of services on which the community can rely on for place-based and specialist supports. The sum of our movement is greater than its individual parts. As a sector, we can work together to challenge systemic issues that other independent organisations that operate in silos can struggle to manage.

Community legal centres are accountable to the community

Community legal centres are an important part of this country’s civil society movement. Our governance model prioritises community ownership and accountability. Centres are embedded in the communities they serve in deep and longstanding ways. Most community legal centres have constitutions/rules that enable any interested person to join the association or to seek election to the board. This means community legal centres are democratically accountable to the community they serve.

Community legal centres can respond rapidly and creatively to changing community need

Our governance model has always been fiercely independent. Because we are not part of government, and face fewer bureaucratic hurdles, we can respond to community needs as they emerge. Legal needs can shift quickly – climate events, economic shocks, and changing government policies, can have immediate impacts on what legal help people need most. Community legal centres can respond to these shifts quickly in ways that government agencies cannot. The lack of bureaucratic hurdles also enables creativity and innovation. Many of the best-practice models of legal assistance we see today – like health justice partnerships – had their origins in community legal centre innovation.  

Community legal centres can help people experiencing a range of barriers to access justice

Community legal centres’ independence gives us the flexibility to support people who need it. Financial disadvantage is a big driver of everyday legal problems, but not the only one. Systemic barriers like racism, gender-based violence, ableism, ageism and homophobia cause significant legal problems and negative life impacts. Community legal centres’ independence allows us to support people experiencing a range of barriers in accessing justice, without being limited by means tests alone. Community legal centres prioritise cultural safety and trauma-informed practice so that people impacted by a range of systemic barriers can feel safe accessing our services.

Community legal centres work to change unfair laws

Community legal centres work every day with people most impacted by unfair laws. We are well-placed to identify and advocate changes to unjust and harmful laws. Overwhelmingly, this work delivers benefits for the people and communities we serve, but our work also benefits all of society. Our movement’s vision is for a fair and equitable society in which:  

  • Our legal systems and institutions are accessible to all, decolonised, and no longer criminalise poverty, disadvantage, or disability,  
  • All members of our community have access to the power, tools and means to live safe, secure, and meaningful lives, free from discrimination, violence, exploitation, and abuse,  
  • We respect and protect the rights of First Nations people and communities to land, language, culture, and self-determination,  
  • We respect and protect the natural environment for current and future generations.  

In recent years the community legal sector has championed vital reforms including abortion law reform, family law reform, COVID fines reform, social security law reform, renting law reform, sexual harassment law reform, and much more.

Community legal centres’ work protects the everyday rights of all people

Community legal centres have always been rights-based. Our services promote everyday justice and help to counterbalance government and bureaucratic power. Our work helps protect and promote the rights of people and communities whose rights are so often jeopardised by poverty and abuses of power by others. We have long recognised that the need for legal assistance and representation extends beyond the criminal courts. For most of us, it is the everyday infringements of our basic rights, including those committed by government – the right to a safe, secure affordable home, the right to a liveable income, the right to healthcare – that have the greatest impacts on our lives. Community legal centres advocate for holistic protection and promotion of all people’s rights and dignity.

Community legal centres are accredited for consistent quality

Community legal centres have rigorous accreditation processes. Our National Accreditation Scheme commits all centres to continuous improvement across 17 standards of service delivery. Accreditation gives insight into each centre’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Good practice is shared so all centres can learn from others’ successes. Vulnerabilities inform state and territory peak bodies’ development of training and sector support programs. Accreditation gives the community confidence that the services they receive are based on best practice and industry standards.

This is the community legal centre model. We are independent community organisations, which deliver high-quality, rights-based, and integrated services to people in need. We use this experience to understand how laws and legal systems need to be changed and then advocate for that change. This is a service model for our times.