There are over 50 community legal centres throughout Victoria. They are staffed by salaried and volunteer lawyers and non-legal staff.
Most community legal centres are funded by the Commonwealth and state governments. VLA administers this funding. Some centres receive funding from other sources, such as local government, tertiary institutions, universities and various trusts.
Community legal centres offer free legal advice; most offer a combination of day and evening legal advice sessions.
Some of the centres do not require appointments for their legal advice sessions, but it is always wise to telephone first.
Community legal centres are a good starting point to:
•sort out legal problems;
•determine eligibility for legal assistance; and
•complete application forms for legal assistance.
A number of centres also:
•handle negotiations and write letters of demand; and
•arrange representation in court proceedings.
The range of services provided varies, as each of the centres has developed its own specific set of guidelines. Most centres have paid staff and are therefore able to handle a wider range of legal work, for example, court representation, issuing and defending summonses and preparing documents.
Community legal centres also participate in a broad range of activities relating to community legal education, preventative law and law reform. This assists members of the community to gain a better understanding of the legal system and specific areas of the law that may affect them. Most funded community legal centres also carry out legal education work. Centres should be contacted if a group would like a speaker to talk on a specific area of the law, or on the legal system generally.
For details about obtaining legal information and resources, contact the Federation of Community Legal Centres (tel: 9652 1500) or visit the website at www.communitylaw.org.au. Some centres also run do-it-yourself classes and/or have kits on common legal problems, such as divorce, wills and motor vehicle accidents. Details of these can be obtained from the federation.
Community legal centres do not have any formal means tests. Advice is generally given to anyone who attends. Generalist centres, however, attempt to cater for people in their local community. The pressure of work often means that geographical limitations are applied, and clients are requested to contact the centre nearest their home address.
The community legal centres generally take on cases where no legal assistance is available if:
•the service user comes from a culturally and linguistically diverse background;
•the problem is one where the centre has particular expertise (e.g. tenancy);
•the area of law is generally unserviced by most lawyers (e.g. mental health law);
•the problem is of relevance to a significant group (e.g. social security); or
•the service user has a special relationship with the service, or would be unable to cope dealing with other professional.
Where work is undertaken, the client is usually required to demonstrate an element of financial need. If a person is assessed as being able to pay for the services of a private lawyer, an appropriate referral is made.
If court representation is required but the client cannot afford to pay all the fees, some centres will arrange for a barrister to appear in court. These services will usually have to be paid for, although many barristers appear for clients of legal centres either for free or at a reduced rate. The arrangement made will depend on the financial situation of the client, the urgency of the case, the resources of the lawyer in the legal centre who takes instructions, the barrister who is briefed to do the appearance, and the outcome of an application for legal assistance made to VLA for consideration (see “Victoria Legal Aid”).