Once again, activist lawyers from across Australia are coming together at the National Conference of Community Legal Centres (#naclc12). It’s a terrific opportunity to reflect on the work of Community Legal Centres (CLCs), and to identify challenges and opportunities.
For those that don’t know, CLCs are independently operating not-for-profit, community-based organisations that provide legal services to the public, focussing on the disadvantaged and people with special needs. As the national peak’s website states, ‘The clients of community legal centres are those who face economic, social or cultural disadvantage, are often experiencing multiple inter-related problems, and frequently their legal problem may affect their and their family’s entire life circumstances.’ The Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, recognised this in her opening speech to the conference today.
I’m currently editing a book on the first 40 years of CLCs, and together with my continuing involvement with the movement (I’m on the boards of the Victorian and national peaks), attending and presenting at the national conference gives me the chance to reflect on the continuing relevance and effectiveness of CLCs.
Simon Rice, who is again presenting at #naclc12, has written: ‘Consistently reciting the mantra of independence, and taking comfort in the fading glow of a radical past, CLCs fail to reflect deeply on their contemporary identity and role.’ Simon goes on to say, ‘Instead of an evolving and maturing sense of their identity, CLCs tend to take for granted the continuing truth of the rhetoric of a CLC identity from days long past. To an extent, early CLCs did have a strongly reformist, if not radical purpose … they rejected the power relationships in the structures of, at least, the legal institutions, most especially the organisation of the profession and of legal education, though less obviously of the liberal state more generally.’
These words are particularly striking if we pause to consider some of the external pressures on community legal centres. CLC pioneer and chronicler, Associate Professor MaryAnne Noone has written:
At a party political level this is likely to mean a change to a Liberal government, both federally and in some States. We know enough about the Liberal Party's policies on industrial relations, welfare and the remainder of the … policy to expect further cuts to services and crackdowns on the least powerful in our community.
The prevailing conservative culture, which is related to the economic environment, also affects other aspects of society … Recent examples include the growing focus on the law and order debate, using young people as a focus for the community's fears and anxieties without attacking the real problems of young people's alienation and unemployment, and the focus on the immigration issue as one way of reducing economic problems and consequently providing another group of scapegoats for the economic situation…
All rather sobering, really, but particularly when you consider MaryAnne wrote these words in a 1992 issue of the Alternative Law Journal.
Which begs the question: are we revolutionary, or just going around in circles?
Many of these existentialist questions will be raised, discussed and contemplated later this week in Adelaide, and are reflected in some of the research and action in and around community legal centres and their partners. But, for now, it’s great to be in Adelaide with a committed group of lawyers working to empower, support and change clients’ lives, and the communities they live in.