Community Legal Centres resist restructuring
By Graham Matthews
BRISBANE — On March 8, about 50 community legal centre (CLC) workers, management committee members and supporters attended a public meeting to hear an explanation of the federal government's proposed review of Queensland CLCs.
Zoe Rathus, coordinator of Women's Legal Service in Brisbane, introduced the meeting by warning that federal reviews of CLCs in Victoria and South Australia had had devastating effects on those services.
Karen Fletcher from the Prisoners' Legal Service argued that CLCs are being forced to fill the gaps in legal service provision left by $30 million cuts made in legal aid nationally by the federal Liberal government in 1996.
Fletcher outlined the recommendations by the South Australian review. She said these forced all CLCs to become small legal aid offices in themselves. "If we are to see ourselves as small legal aid offices, then we'll lose our ability to do much of what we do now", Fletcher warned.
In order to preserve the independence of CLCs, Fletcher said, "It's important we go to the community. These are political issues. We've seen in South Australia what will happen if the debate stays in house."
Merran Lawler, coordinator of Caxton Legal Centre, explained that the Victorian review was unrepresentative. CLC representatives were nominated by legal aid, and confidentiality rules prevented them discussing the process with other CLC activists.
The Victorian review had dismissed the idea that CLCs represent a community of interest (such as women, youth or prisoners), Lawler said, and argued that they could be reorganised and rationalised at will. The Victorian process led to many closures and amalgamations of centres.
"The Victorian report is a warning against complacency", she said. "We're here today because we've never been afraid to fight."
The meeting was also addressed by John Hodges, CEO of Legal Aid Queensland. "The price you pay for additional government funding is that the government will call the shots", he said. He insisted that the review would lead to no job losses in CLCs, but could give no guarantees about amalgamation of centres.
A meeting of the Queensland Association of Independent Legal Services followed. It agreed on three conditions for CLC participation in the review: before the review is constituted and meets, QAILS is given full opportunity to contribute to the content and breadth of the terms of reference; the review process is open unless unanimously agreed otherwise; the CLC members are to be representative of and accountable to QAILS.