Working together for change a win for Victorian renters

Thanks to Tenants Victoria for their tireless advocacy to get a better deal for renters in Victoria. Changes to the Residential Tenancies Act due to this strong advocacy will have a positive impact for thousands of people, who will now be treated fairer when they rent a place to call home. We were proud to join Tenants Victoria in their fight to stand up for regional Victorians, and thank them for their letter to acknowledge our support.

Tenants Victoria_Thanks for your support HRCLS

 

Strong relationships key to success for removing invisible legal hurdles for young people

A three-year pilot project to increase access to free legal assistance for young people experiencing, or at-risk of, family violence has resulted in many legal problems being fixed for those who would not normally get help from a lawyer.

In a Border first, the innovative Invisible Hurdles project saw Hume Riverina Community Legal Service embed a free lawyer into three organisations:  Albury Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service (AWAHS), Wodonga Flexible Learning Centre and North East Support and Action for Youth Inc. (NESAY). Throughout the project, over 100 people were assisted with legal problems who would not have otherwise accessed a lawyer.

In launching the Invisible Hurdles Report, Overcoming the Invisible Hurdles to Justice for Young People, on Thursday 8 November, HRCLS Principal Lawyer Sarah Rodgers said of the many reasons behind the project’s success, the significant commitment by the partners was crucial to the outcomes.

“Co-location, relationship-building and trust, along with our availability and ability to respond quickly to legal problems, were central to us more effectively reaching the young people we want to help,” Ms Rodgers said. “As an independent community legal centre, we have the flexibility to help people for free, and without the strict guidelines that apply to accessing legal aid.”

Ms Rodgers said the service was proud to be part of the Integrated Justice Practice, combining health, education and legal services, which had proven to be very effective in getting legal issues because of the early intervention.

“This model is needed to help prevent legal problems from escalating and gives the best chance of a positive outcome,” she said. “Part of our strategic focus is ensuring young people experiencing family violence have the legal support they need to deal with the issues.”

North East Support and Action for Youth Inc. CEO Leah Waring said a positive ripple effect had been created relationships enhanced, while providing an opportunity for NESAY employees to gain new skills.

“Our staff now have the ability to identify a potential legal problem, and have the confidence to refer people they’re seeing who need legal advice to the Invisible Hurdles lawyer,” she said. “Our young people would be highly unlikely to make an appointment for help from the lawyer without encouragement from a support work they trust. And our young people are staggered they can see a lawyer for free, so without the Invisible Hurdles project, the opportunities for them to get legal help basically don’t exist.”

Dr Liz Curran, Associate Professor of Law at the ANU College of Law, led the research and evaluation of the project with Pamela Taylor-Barnett. Dr Curran said the research showed how allowing time for natural progression and learning was pivotal.

“The most important thing we learnt was that young people, the vulnerable and even professional services providers don’t trust lawyers and the legal system and that trust takes time to build,” Dr Curran said. “In the final year of the project, when those relationships were strong and working smoothly, we saw a massive increase in referrals and consultations – 288 in the final 12 months of the project.”

The first two years of the Invisible Hurdles project was made possible through funding received from the Victorian Legal Services Board Grant Program. Stage 2 funding for a further two years was announced on 29 October 2018.

Invisible Hurdles Report – Overcoming the Invisible Hurdles to Justice for Young People is online.

Victorian funding for Stage 2 project to keep clearing legal hurdles for young people

Young people experiencing family violence on the Border will continue to have access to justice through free legal assistance. The Invisible Hurdles project has received $340,000 of Victorian State Government funding over the next two years, through the Victorian Legal Services Board Grants Program.

Hume Riverina Community Legal Service Principal Lawyer Sarah Rodgers said the service was thrilled the Invisible Hurdles Project would keep delivering positive outcomes for young people needing legal assistance.

“In the last 12 months of the project, we saw a steady increase in referrals. This demonstrated how a program of this unique nature requires time for people to build skills, knowledge and trust, but it can impact lives in a significant way,” Ms Rodgers said.

Ms Rodgers said the successful funding application ensures Stage 2 of the Invisible Hurdles Project would provide the necessary scope and resources to build the service through partners, North East Support and Action for Youth Inc., the Albury Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service and Wodonga Flexible Learning Centre.

“This decision vindicates the work achieved in the first three years of this important project, the first of its kind in our region to target vulnerable youth linked in with key services,” Ms Rodgers said. “Many of the people we’re helping have experienced family violence, homelessness or trauma, and they often need legal advice urgently. We know if they are in a safe environment where they feel comfortable, and trust the people who are helping them, they are more likely to reach out for our legal help.

“In addition to our embedded lawyer at each location, a community development worker will be part of the project to help further educate young people on how they can impact the decisions being made that affect their lives.”

The funding announcement came just before the Invisible Hurdles Report launch on Thursday 8 November. Ms Rodgers said the inclusion of a community development worker was a key recommendation from the Invisible Hurdles Final Report.

Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula made the Victorian Legal Services Board Grant Program funding announcement last week, stating the funding to provide legal assistance and programs “is making a difference to the lives of some of our most vulnerable people, including victims of family violence and people with mental illness.” Mr Pakula congratulated funding recipients for the innovative projects and commitment to increasing access to justice for Victorians.

HRCLS supports The Justice Project call for stronger focus on legal needs of regional Australians

Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS) principal lawyer Sarah Rodgers has welcomed many of the recommendations in the Justice Project Final Report released last week. Ms Rodgers met with representatives from The Justice Project last year during the National Association of Community Legal Centres annual conference to talk about the important issues from a HRCLS perspective.

“We agree with the Justice Project’s vision of no person being denied access to justice in Australia,” Ms Rodgers said. “We fully support the Law Council of Australia continuing to engage with Government and the legal sector to advance the findings from this Report.”

HRCLS principal lawyer Sarah Rodgers

Ms Rodgers said the HRCLS submission to the Report drew attention to a number of issues, including the need for longer-term funding grants, and the impact of large catchment areas on Rural, Regional and Remote community legal centres.

“It was important we highlighted to The Justice Project how the geographic spread and diversity of our Shires means that many people we see are financially and socially disadvantaged” she said.

Another HRCLS recommendation was the need for funding more than one Community Legal Centre (CLC) in each region to address conflict of interest issues would help remove a significant barrier.

“We turnaway about a third of the people who contact us for legal assistance, primarily due to conflicts of interest,” Ms Rodgers said. “Our service continues to see a high level of legal need, and these people have limited options for free legal representation, especially to deal with family law matters.”

As part of the submission to the Final Report, HRCLS also included the Invisible Hurdles project involving NESAY, and the Health Justice partnership with Gateway Health as success stories to highlight how service providers can work together to help people experiencing severe disadvantage.

Key HRCLS recommendations to the Justice Project report

  1. That lawmakers, policy makers and statutory bodies be required to consider cross border and regional areas when enacting laws and in their implementation.
  2. Fund more than one CLC in each catchment area.
  3. Provide incentives to private lawyers to encourage them to provide pro bono assistance to disadvantaged people, including by volunteering their time to their local CLC.
  4. Provide incentives to encourage lawyers to relocate to the country, such as HELP debt relief, salary packaging or housing subsidies.
  5. For courts to reconsider online only applications – e.g. divorce applications must now be lodged online. This creates barriers for elderly people, people with literacy issues and those living in rural areas with a lack of internet coverage.
  6. Fund longer term grants (more than one-two years) to allow sufficient time to establish a project and build relationships of trust.

 

 

Pilot Project flying the legal flag for consumers on the Border

Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS) has joined forces with the Consumer Action Law Centre (CALC) to strengthen its approach to dealing with consumer legal issues faced by people on the Border.

HRCLS has entered a partnership with the Victorian-based CALC, along with Barwon Community Legal Service, to work together to identify and address the consumer law, credit law and insurance law needs of clients living in regional and rural Victoria and to provide better access to CALC’s specialist knowledge.

HRCLS principal lawyer Sarah Rodgers said the six-month project allowed HRCLS to play a part in the Federation of CLCs’ ongoing campaign to increase access to justice for people and has assisted the service’s lawyers identify consumer problems and help people, particularly those who have been misled and face crushing debt and repayment issues.

“We see a lot of people who are affected by family violence, or suffering disability, mental illness or homelessness” Ms Rodgers said. “Frequently these are people who also find themselves in debt through unfair loans or consumer leases and they don’t realise they can get help with these issues. Working with CALC has meant that we are better equipped to help people with all their legal problems and to connect them with specialist legal advice from wherever they are in our region.”

CALC Lawyers Lachlan Edwards, Philippa Heir and Lisa Grealy have visited HRCLS over the past few months to train staff and establish clear referral pathways to CALC’s expertise. Jesse Marshall was in the region last week and was able to provide community worker training in Wangaratta on Thursday 28, June alongside HRCLS lawyers Deb Fisher and Jodie Wells. The topics discussed were Fines, Family Law and Consumer Issues; three common, everyday legal problems. It is hoped that the more community workers are informed about the law in these areas and the services that are available to assist, the earlier people will be referred for the help they need.

Ms Rodgers said HRCLS would also use the opportunity of working with CALC to learn more about running law reform campaigns to target inconsistencies in the law and advocate for positive change. “CALC is a leader in the sector for highlighting legal issues and getting results, and we want to increase our law reform effort,” she said. “Identifying potential law reform areas and calling on Governments to make changes to the law stops people getting entangled in the law system in the first place. This reduction in the number of people getting in trouble with the law and their issues exacerbating is a win-win situation.”

This work has been undertaken within the framework of a broader project led by the Federation of Community Legal Centres, to improve the interaction between the 24 generalist and 25 specialist Community Legal Centres (CLCs) across Victoria. The Project is funded and supported through Victoria Legal Aid’s Community Legal Centre Innovation and Transformation Fund.

Elderly citizens have rights and deserve to feel safe in our community

Local service providers are encouraging the community to speak up if they see elder abuse occurring. World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is on Friday 15 June, and with the World Health Organisation believing elder abuse is under-reported, it is important for people to report when an elderly person has been harmed in some way.

Hume Riverina Community Legal Service senior lawyer Karen Keegan said Elder Abuse was a highly complicated issue but everyone has rights regardless of age.

“Just because you get old, doesn’t mean you become a second-class citizen and have less legal rights,” Ms Keegan said. “The elderly deserve to be respected and the more that can be done to encourage people who experience elder abuse to speak up, the better, because it’s common for people not to talk about their experience because they fear further abuse.”

Along with the shame of the experience, people can feel helpless in their situation due to the common dynamic of the relationship between victim and abuser.

HRCLS senior lawyer Karen Keegan with Albury Wodonga health Older Persons Mental Health Services OD Grace Churches after the Elder Abuse information session.

“When it occurs, it can be very distressing for victims, as it is often family members, a close friend or a trusted carer who are doing the abuse,” Ms Keegan said. “Often the victim relies on the abuser for care, for support, for transport, or because they have no one else who will help them.”

Service workers play a vital role in identifying elder abuse, and given the complex nature of how it can present, it is important they understand some of the ways elder abuse can be reduced. Ms Keegan recently visited the Albury Wodonga Health Older Person’s Mental Health Service to speak with staff about the need for elderly people to have a Power of Attorney appointed and wishes clearly stated in a Will.

“Having your affairs in order and documents in place helps reduce the risk of elder abuse, particularly around finances,” Ms Keegan said. “Elder abuse is a form of domestic violence and can take many forms. Financial abuse remains at the top of the list. This can be as simple as taking $20 here and there out of Mum’s purse, or a son or a daughter moving back home and making Mum and Dad feel uncomfortable as they overtake the residence.”

Ms Keegan praised service providers such as Albury Wodonga Health for their pro-active approach to identifying elder abuse and acting in the best interests of those people in their care. “We look forward to continuing our partnership with Albury Wodonga Health and seeing the mutual benefits that arise as a result,” Ms Keegan said.

For free legal assistance, phone Hume Riverina Community Legal Service on 1800 918 377.

Funding to help young people clear Invisible legal hurdles on the Border

Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula announced $200,000 funding over two years for a Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS) integrated justice partnership on 1 June 2018. This funding will be used to continue the Invisible Hurdles project, involving the Wodonga Flexible Learning Centre, the Albury Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service (AWAHS) and Wangaratta-based NESAY, into the 2018-19 financial year.

HRCLS principal lawyer Sarah Rodgers welcomed the additional funding and thanked the State Government for acknowledging the importance of integrated justice partnerships, particularly those helping young people experiencing family violence.

“We’re excited about continuing this important work with our partners into the future,” Ms Rodgers said. “We know young people will not walk into a lawyer’s office off the street, so being on-site with services who they trust has been crucial for the success of the project.”

“Making a difference for people affected by family violence is a key priority for our service. Young people affected by family violence often have numerous other legal problems, so providing a friendly, accessible, wrap-around service is critical,” she said. “The sooner young people get legal help, the higher the chance of a positive outcome.”

The Victorian Legal Service Board Grants Program funded the Invisible Hurdles project from December 2015 to May 2018. This latest funding has been provided by the Department of Justice and Regulation. Ms Rodgers said the Invisible Hurdles Project Stage 1 final report and evaluation was in the process of being produced, and is expected to be launched in October. Without pre-empting the findings, Ms Rodgers said the health justice partnership had made an impact at various levels.

“We’re proud of how the Invisible Hurdles Project has helped young people understand their legal rights and solved their legal problems,” she said. “Along with our legal assistance, this has been achieved through staff at each service understanding how we work, identifying legal problems, being willing to refer young people and trusting us to act in their best care.”

Local lawyer repays community with help for people in need of legal assistance

A strong social conscience drawn out of the caring community he grew up in has driven a local man to volunteer to help locals needing legal advice for a range of issues. In his spare time, Maurice Blackburn lawyer Kip Frawley volunteers at the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS) as part of a roster to give free legal advice at the fortnightly evening clinic.

With Volunteer Week being recognised nationally, Kip reflected on his willingness to volunteer, and how his effort has helped double the amount the number of appointments now available at the HRCLS evening clinic every second Tuesday.

Wangaratta-based HRCLS lawyer Deb Fisher said the strong volunteer culture in Wangaratta was helping make a difference for people needing legal assistance. “The evening clinic allows people from outside Wangaratta or those who can’t make daytime appointments, to access free legal advice outside work hours,” Ms Fisher said. “Thanks to the ongoing commitment of a growing number of volunteers, we have capacity to see six more clients than we would otherwise. We are grateful for their help and value their contribution.”

Born and raised in Wangaratta, Kip grew up with four siblings in a close family unit, and the values and ethos of his mother and father, GPs Jenny Murray and Gavin Frawley, had a lasting impact on how their son views the world and his place in it.

“They led by example. My parents are very community minded. Mum ran the school fete for years, and they got involved in the soccer and footy clubs when we started playing,” Kip said. “So the desire to ‘give back to the community’ was instilled at an early age.”

Once he’d settled on law as a career, Kip moved to Canberra to study at ANU. The lifestyle and environment enhanced his social justice conscience where he learnt and developed a particular interest in indigenous law and issues. For his last semester, Kip headed to Vienna after catching the travel bug during a visit to Indonesia.

“A highlight was a subject in mediation resolution with a large Austrian law firm, which had a partnership with the University of Vienna,” he said. “It was a great chance for me to see some of the world while finishing off study.”

Volunteer Kip Frawley is one of a number of local lawyers, including Wendy Couzens (pictured), volunteering on a regular basis at HRCLS.

On his return, Kip’s experience with social justice issues started while completing his Practical Legal Training in Darwin working at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency. Then after a short stint as a paralegal in the firm’s Melbourne office and his admission as legal practitioner, Kip joined Maurice Blackburn back in his home town just over 12 months ago.

“I’ve always been interested in social justice, and the no-win, no-fee arrangement Maurice Blackburn offers facilitates access to justice for people who might not otherwise be able to obtain it,” he said. “Growing up in the country, I always wanted to return to a regional area, so coming home was a perfect fit.”

Kip represents people in WorkCover and TAC claims to help people get compensation and medical treatment. “This idea of equality before the law – while it sounds good in theory – it’s not something we always see in practice. So for me it’s about fighting for that and sticking up for people in vulnerable situations,” he said.

Volunteering allows Kip the opportunity to help people as a way of repaying a community that gave him plenty when he was young. Before heading to Darwin, he approached HRCLS about volunteering in the hope he could one day take up a role, and last year reconnected with the service.

“Volunteer work is something I’ve always done, whether that is in the legal, community or sporting space and this is one small way that I can use my training to help people doing it tough,” he said. “I get exposure to different areas of law and it reminds me of why I got into law in the first place. I’d encourage other lawyers if they have the time to get involved at HRCLS, because community legal centres’ resources are thin and you can help people who need it the most.”

Anyone interested in volunteering with the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service can visit the Volunteer page.

 

Volunteering brings sense of personal satisfaction

About Wendy Couzens – Wangaratta evening clinic volunteer

How long have you been a lawyer? Almost 5 years.

 What is the name of your firm? Morgan Couzens Legal.

HRCLS volunteers Wendy Couzens and Kip Frawley at the Wangaratta Tuesday evening clinic.

 What attracted you to becoming a lawyer? I had worked as a law clerk for several years, and decided that I would enjoy working as a solicitor. I continued working as a clerk whilst undertaking university studies.

 Why did you decide to volunteer with HRCLS? I really enjoy helping clients in a practical sense by talking the client through the legal options available and also pointing out the practical reality of what those options mean for the client’s situation. Whilst working in private practice, the clients that I help are those who already know that they need a lawyer and can afford to pay for a lawyer. Volunteering with HRCLS I can assist people who sometimes aren’t certain what type of help they need and those who, for various reasons, cannot afford to pay a lawyer to act for them.

 What benefits do you get from volunteering as a lawyer? A sense of personal satisfaction and the knowledge that I am helping people in my local community with an expertise that many people don’t have.

 Why would you encourage other lawyers to volunteer? Assisting people outside your usual client group shows you what issues are relevant to other people in your community and what opportunities might be out there to give back. Finding solutions to unusual problems helps to develop lateral thinking skills.

How has volunteering helped you in your day-to-day role? Volunteering broadens my perspective to include issues that people outside my normal client group are facing. My firm writes an online blog which focuses on issues related to employment law and when I write for that blog, I often draw on questions that are asked of me both in private practice and as a volunteer.


Anyone interested in volunteering with the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service can visit the Volunteer page.

 

Independent umpire as important now as ever – Victorian Ombudsman to visit Wodonga for Law Week Launch 2018

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass OBE will speak about the exercise of discretion in administrative decision-making at a keynote address to mark the beginning of Law Week. Ms Glass is a guest of the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS), which is holding a Law Week Launch on Friday 11 May at The Cube Wodonga at 3pm.

Following a distinguished career in London, in several high-profile roles including deputy chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission of England and Wales, Ms Glass was appointed for a 10-year term in March 2014 as the Victorian Ombudsman.

HRCLS senior lawyer Karen Keegan said the office of the Victorian Ombudsman played a vital role in ensuring people had an independent body to approach when issues needed to be resolved.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass OBE

“We are proud to be part of a sector that views access to justice in the highest importance,” Ms Keegan said.

Ms Keegan said the service was pleased Ms Glass had accepted the invitation to launch Law Week to give people on the Border a chance to learn about her role four years after being appointed.

“Our motto is ‘Linking the community with the Law’ and while we do this on a daily basis, Law Week is a chance for us to extend that beyond legal assistance to broader legal education,” she said.

“People expect fair and reasonable decision-making in the Victorian public sector, and this is an opportunity for people to hear how the Ombudsman approaches her work to reach decisions,” she said. “Ms Glass holds a firm belief in public sector integrity and the protection of human rights, and these are values that many people in our region are also passionate about upholding.”

The office of the Victorian Ombudsman is increasing its connection with the community legal sector, and Ms Keegan welcomes any move that strengthens this relationship. “We are looking forward to hearing more about the Ombudsman’s plan to build connections with our sector, and we would welcome any closer ties we could create to ensure the Ombudsman was aware of issues in our catchment in Victoria of 10 local government areas,” she said.

The HRCLS Law Week Launch is open to the public. Tickets are $10 and can be booked through the HRCLS website – http://hrcls.org.au/events/.