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A Day and Night at Redfern's Community Legal Centre

With budget cuts looming, we investigate the human cost of Australia's social service funding black hole.

Jason J. Cohn

All photos by the author

An elegant Victorian sandstone building in Sydney's inner-city suburb of Redfern hosts the state's oldest legal centre. On entry, I pass an intense conversation in what sounds like Cantonese.

"That's our translation service," Communications Manager Ella Semega-Janneh explains as I'm led to the meeting room (a kitchenette with a table).

With impending cuts to social services, I'm here on a quest to understand how money flows in an institution heavily reliant on government funding. A major problem preventing us from having a productive national conversation about our fiscal policy is the difficulty for those of us without a finance background to conceptualise what billions in cuts actually means in real terms. Sure it sounds like a lot, but so does $20 for a movie ticket.

Community legal centres, or CLCs, are the quiet achievers of our justice system. Think of them as the shy friend-of-a-friend at the party whom no-one really knows but happily cleans up after everyone passes out. Unlike the more court-focused Legal Aid, CLCs are intimately involved in their local communities and give holistic advice tailored to the circumstances of their vulnerable clients.

"The reason you're not getting answers from me about being frightened about what's happening in two years is because I'm frightened about what's happening in six months." — Joanna Shulman

CEO Joanna Shulman greets us with a huge smile and excitable attitude. She tells me about how the RLC holds information evenings, trains local services to better help vulnerable members of the community, and even shapes legislation. A big recent win came when their research prompted a national inquiry into shady vocational training institutions.

But despite an extensive legal background, Joanna's time increasingly revolves around money. Where to find it, what to do with it, and how to run a centre without much of it.

The maths

The RLC's funding model is kind of complicated; they receive money from federal (20 percent), state (76 percent) and local governments (4 percent plus subsidised rent). Some of it is recurring and relatively reliable, some of it comes in the way of grants targeted toward initiatives like the recently-announced boost to tackle domestic violence.

To try to wrap my head around the figures, I meet with administrator Hillary Chesworth and see just how tight a ship they've been running. Over 85 percent of their income goes toward modest employee salaries. So modest that over the next few years they will transition to the minimum wage for the sector. Solicitors at legal centres earn about half the industry standard, and a third less than those at LegalAid despite doing mostly the same work.

"We've always been adaptable and innovative." — Hillary Chesworth

Pockets of funding at all levels are under threat. Some are not being renewed, others are being reduced. In 2017, the sector will see a 25 percent cut in Commonwealth funding across the board. Funding cycles are now reviewed annually rather than every three years, making it difficult to plan ahead further than a single financial year. As a result, new employees are generally put on 12, six or even three-month contracts, which makes it hard to attract top talent.

"I've been very lucky in my time here that I've had CEOs who are very good at chasing money," Hillary says.

A new fire starts to burn every so often as a matter of routine, and it's Joanna's job to invent new ways of putting them out. In June the University of New South Wales has stepped in to fill a position for their police powers service which was almost forced to close.

"We've always been adaptable and innovative."

Joanna seems unbelievably upbeat when talking about the centre's prospects. I actually don't believe it, so I try to press her a little.

"So you're optimistic about the future?"

"No, it's depressing", she laughs.

"Pessimistic?"

She takes a beat and her trademark smile disappears for a moment.

"I'm pretty worried."

I ask Joanna in a few different ways how she plans to navigate the storm ahead, but she brushes them off, almost puzzled as to why I'd ask.

"The reason you're not getting answers from me about being frightened about what's happening in two years is because I'm frightened about what's happening in six months."

A Thursday night at the RLC

Each weeknight the centre runs services by appointment for issues ranging from minor criminal matters to employment. If a particularly vulnerable person shows up unannounced, the policy is to take them in straight away.

The RLC is powered through a network of 300 volunteers. Lawyers with mandatory pro bono hours or just an interest in helping out are trained and overseen by a staff solicitor at a ratio of about 10:1. The more paid staff the RLC has, the more volunteers it can utilise. Even ALDI would struggle to beat eleven lawyers working for a single minimum wage salary.

Will Dwyer gave up good pay and security at a mining company to work at the RLC.

It's 6pm and the evening's volunteers are assembling from their day jobs, grabbing a slice of pizza on their way in, and reading up on their cases before clients start to arrive. Thursday nights are all about credit and debt, and the solicitors on show come from private practices, government agencies, and other legal centres.

Tonight's advice is managed by a calming and knowledgeable Will Dwyer, who can't be much older than thirty. Hardcore Four Corners fans may recognise him as part of the RLC team that investigated the sinister side of payday lending. Will previously worked at a mining company to "see the other side" and make money, before jumping at the chance to join the RLC in a relatively permanent role. It's clear he believes deeply in the centre's work. I'm curious as to whether he would have taken the job on a 6-month contract. "Probably not."

He lets me know I've got the all-clear to sit-in on a meeting between a client and a volunteer so I settle into a seat at the kitchen table. It strikes me immediately that each time I've had a meeting or interview, it's been in the kitchen. There's nothing quite like discussing funding constraints of social justice with someone making tea behind you.

Kitchens make for an unintimidating setting for legal consultations

The young solicitor giving advice is energetic, caring and patient. He meticulously jots down each detail of the client's case, thinking through strategies out loud. Unpaid strata fees have compounded into the thousands. The client insists he has asked repeatedly what the fees were for with no answer, but unless he fights the body corporate and wins he faces the ultimate financial penalty.

"Are you aware of the seriousness of bankruptcy?", the solicitor asks, sensitively.

The client sighs, despondent, and glances my way.

"It's a lot of work, going to court."

Face to face

I'm called for another sit-in, this time over an actual desk, where a mother and daughter are being taken through the steps of renegotiating a personal loan. Having entered with little idea as to their standing, the two walk out confident and jovial. The solicitor tells me they were a breeze compared to her first-ever client at the centre who "burst into tears straight away."

She tells me about her background and I'm stunned. It seems almost wasteful to have a young woman with the International Criminal Court on her CV giving advice about a Foxtel bill, so I ask the group of volunteers point-blank: how much of the general counsel they provide is available online? It turns out, quite a lot. The LawAccess NSW website is quick to load, easy to use and available in many languages. But many clients deal with mental illness, homelessness, and domestic violence in ways that limit their access to online resources. I ask how many of their clients know about the LawAccess website. I see a collection of doubtful looks until one chips in: "Pretty much none. And even if they did, a lot of them wouldn't know what to do with it."

"This isn't a charity." — Ella Samega-Janneh

Will says they sometimes refer less serious cases to financial counsellors instead, but they too exist in a perennial funding struggle. Financial counsellors can be incredibly helpful, but they are often booked weeks in advance which, in certain circumstances, may as well be an eternity for someone needing urgent help.

A senior solicitor strolls through the office on her way home and checks up on the night's progress. She casually recounts the story of a particularly difficult client who punched her in the stomach and then returned to apologise. They did not turn away that client.

However, CLCs do turn away tens of thousands of people a year. The demand is so high that the Productivity Commission has recommended an injection of $200 million into the sector, but with the Government seemingly ignoring the report, cuts remain a part of daily life at the RLC.

I ask Joanna what a 25 percent reduction in funding would mean for the centre.

She answered bluntly and gravely.

"A 25 percent reduction in services."

CLCs run on the principle that access to justice begins well before you set foot in a courtroom, and the cracks in our justice system are biggest for those of us who are unlucky enough to not know how to help ourselves.

As Ella Samega-Janneh explained to me in our first kitchen meeting: "This isn't a charity. People deserve this."

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