The First Year
The St Kilda Free Legal Service, as it was known at its inception, began informally in 1971, but it wasn’t until 1973 that the Service began to recruit volunteer solicitors. At the first meeting on 4th April 1973, “more than 40 legal men”1 attended to help set up the Service, which would hold advice sessions two nights a week.
The Legal Service was part of the new St Kilda Community Group that was set up to provide welfare services to the community, including family planning, chiropody, marriage guidance and welfare referrals. The Service was one of the first CLCs to be established in Victoria and was done so in response to the community’s lack of access to justice and to the legal system generally.
St Kilda Community Group held its first AGM in August 1973. A Chairman’s annual report was written (by Richard Thomas) which included a summary on each of the services the Community Group offered. The following summary on the St Kilda Legal Service was included in the report:
“An exciting development of the last couple of years has been the growth in the provision of legal aid services for those of limited means. The Steering Committee was keen to incorporate some sort of legal aid service in the Centre and this has now been a reality for a number of months. The scheme involves the co-operation of qualified lawyers, law students and some enthusiastic lay people. The formative stages were also smoothed by the efforts of Marion Scown, Helen Halliday and of Anna Hassett.
There are now four legal aid services, to my knowledge, operating in the metropolitan area. We are pleased and proud to have one in St Kilda. This is a suburb with a very great need for this type of service. The very high number of deserted wives, single parents and similar people results in a higher than average need for basic legal advice.
Many of our residents simply cannot afford professional assistance and so, without this service, they would remain in ignorance of their legal rights and opportunities. The level of need is very simply demonstrated by the fact that the Legal Aid Service is now operating on two evenings each week and is usually handling a capacity demand of some fifteen cases per session.
Although some points remain to be ironed out by those running the Service, such as the exact type of cases which may in future be handled beyond simply the advice stage and the method of funding, they have already come a long way. There are many grateful local citizens who would join me in thanking this dedicated band of men and women for providing this service and making our dimension of service that much wider.”2
At first, few people realised the free Legal Service was available, but demand increased dramatically between June and November 1973 and an urgent call for further volunteers was published in the local newspaper, theSouthern Cross.
With the Service’s popularity came the need for a more efficiently operated Service, and four law students (Barry Berger, Alan Rochman, Sam Chizik and Joe Katz) were given the task of developing a structure to ensure the ongoing coordination and development of the Service. These volunteers were crucial to the ongoing operations of the Service in its early developmental stage.
More than thirty years of achievements
The Service commenced as an unfunded organisation, staffed entirely by a group of volunteers. It continued on a volunteer basis for a number of years with small funding grants from the then St Kilda Council and with ongoing support from the St Kilda Community Group.
In February 1980, the Service was registered as a Cooperative and became officially known as the St Kilda Legal Service Co-Op. Ltd. The Service became a separate entity from the St Kilda Community Group and a Board of Directors was appointed to oversee the management of the Service, which is how the Service is still run today.
Also in 1980, the work of the Service and that of other Community Legal Centres was finally acknowledged by the then Commonwealth Legal Aid Commission. The funding allocation of $3,000 enabled the Service to employ a part-time solicitor.
As funds increased over the years, the Service has been able to expand its catchment area to include the Cities of Port Phillip, Bayside, Stonnington and parts of Glen Eira.
The Service has a long history of co-location with the Port Phillip Community Group (previously the St Kilda Community Group) and the Tenants Union of Victoria at the St Kilda Community Centre, now located at 161 Chapel Street, St Kilda. The Community Group has provided much support to the Legal Service over the years, including the provision of reception, workspace and stationery resources when the Service was insufficiently funded for such necessities.
Over the years the Service has received increased funding from various sources and has been able to employ an administrator, a casework lawyer, a community legal education lawyer, a volunteer coordinator and most recently a community drug outreach lawyer. Most of the funding the Service received was, and still is, from the Commonwealth and State Governments through the Community Legal Centre program administered by the Victoria Legal Aid Community Legal Centre Funding Program. In 2003 the Service first received funding for the community drug outreach project.
The Legal Service Now
The St Kilda Legal Service is one of 50 Community Legal Centres operating in Victoria.
Today the Legal Service and the Port Phillip Community Group continue to work collaboratively on common issues affecting members of the community, some resources are shared as is the day to day responsibility for the Community Centre operations. Co-location has proven to benefit not only the organisations, and their paid and unpaid workers, but also those seeking assistance from one of the various programs operating within the Community Centre. This is because many people attending require assistance with a number of different issues, many of which can be accommodated to varying degrees at the Community Centre.
Although funding for the St Kilda Legal Service has certainly improved over the years, it remains inadequate to meet the growing needs of our local community. However, the commitment by the Legal Service Board of Directors, staff and volunteers to providing free and accessible services to the disempowered and disadvantaged members of our community remains as strong and as relevant as it was when the Service commenced in 1973.
1 Southern Cross, 11 April 1973
2 St Kilda Legal Service—Annual Report 2002-2003