There are over 50 community legal centres throughout Victoria. They are staffed by paid 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 councils, universities and 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:
• obtain legal advice;
• sort out a legal problem;
• determine eligibility for legal assistance;
• complete application forms for legal assistance.
A number of centres also:
• handle negotiations and write letters of demand;
• arrange representation in court proceedings.
The range of services provided varies, as each centre 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 (e.g. court representation, issuing and defending summonses and preparing documents).
Community legal centres also participate in a broad range of activities relating to preventative law, law reform and community legal education. Education assists members of the community to gain a better understanding of the legal system and the specific areas of the law that may affect them. Contact your nearest community legal centre if you would like a speaker to talk to a group about 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 their website at www.communitylaw.org.au. Some centres also run do-it-yourself classes and/or have kits on common legal problems (e.g. divorce, wills and car 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 high demand for assistance often means that geographical limitations are applied, and clients are requested to contact the centre nearest their home address.
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);
• the service user has a special relationship with the service, or would be unable to cope with going elsewhere for assistance.
Where work is undertaken, the client is usually required to demonstrate an element of financial need. If a person is able to pay a private lawyer, an appropriate referral is made.
If court representation is required, some centres will arrange for a barrister to appear in court. Many barristers appear for clients of community legal centres either for free or at a reduced rate. The arrangement made depends on the client’s financial situation, the urgency of the case, the resources of the community lawyer in the legal centre, the barrister who is briefed to do the appearance, and the outcome of an application for legal assistance (see “Victoria Legal Aid”).
The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) provides legal services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who need a criminal, family or civil lawyer.
Most cases are handled completely by VALS staff, although in country areas a local solicitor may be asked to act on behalf of VALS clients.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people living in Melbourne should visit or telephone the head office (see below). Country residents may telephone the head office or their local VALS office. VALS has offices in Bairnsdale, Ballarat, Heywood, Mildura, Morwell, Shepparton and Swan Hill. (For a full list of VALS offices and their addresses, see Legal services that can help.)
Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS)
273 High Street, Preston Vic 3072
Tel: 9418 5999; 1800 064 865
The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service is available to all people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. The service is available to those people who meet the requirements of a means test.