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.

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.

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.

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