Each State and Territory in Australia has legal services which provide free legal assistance to vulnerable clients.This resource refers to them collectively as community lawyers.
Community legal centres are independent, government-funded community organisations that provide a range of free legal advice and assistance to vulnerable clients. There are generalist and specialist community legal centres. Specialist means that a centre focuses on a particular client group (eg, women) or a particular area of law (eg, Centrelink). Consider the community legal centre directory to understand what specialist services are available.
Some community lawyers provide outreach or integrated legal services to connect to vulnerable populations at, for example, hospitals, homeless support agencies or youth services.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services provide specialist advice and assistance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for a range of legal issues.
Legal Aid Commissions (LACs) offer free legal information and referrals. LACs can generally provide advice and assistance in family law and criminal law matters. Some LACs provide advice and assistance with civil law matters, such as debt, consumer issues, discrimination and employment. Consider the website of your State or Territory LAC to understand what services are available.
If you are not sure which legal service is right for your client, call the following organisations for a referral:
Ongoing assistance and representation may not be available: Community lawyers have limited resources, and the type of assistance available differs from service to service. Strict guidelines often apply to ongoing assistance for a legal issue or representation in a court or tribunal may not be available. Community lawyers offer services on a spectrum:
More clients will receive simpler services, and the level of service will depend on the legal service and the legal issue. Each legal service will apply strict guidelines about who gets the more complex services. You can help your client understand these limits by speaking to the community lawyers at the legal service first.
The client may need to connect with more than one community lawyer:Legal services may not able to assist your client with all of their legal problems. Depending on the issues you identify using the Legal Health Check, you may need to connect your client with two or more community lawyers. For example, in Queensland, a client may receive representation through Legal Aid Queensland for a family law matter and ongoing casework assistance from volunteer lawyers at the LawRight Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic for their debt to a utility provider.
Limitation periods may apply to your client’s legal issues: There are strict time limits, called “limitation periods”, for taking action for some legal issues, for example certain employment or compensation claims. Connect your client with a community lawyer as soon as possible after you identify a legal issue. If a limitation period has passed, the lawyer may not be able to assist the client.
A legal service may not be able to assist the client if there is a conflict of interest: If a community lawyer is already assisting or connected to another other party involved in your client’s legal matter, the lawyer will not be able to assist your client as well. If there is a conflict of interest, the community lawyer may be able to refer your client to another legal service.
Sometimes, there will not be a “legal” solution the client’s problem: If a community lawyer is not able to assist a client, they will normally explain why this is the case and may refer the client to other support services or complaint agencies
There are some legal issues that community lawyers cannot help with: Community lawyers cannot generally assist with business or commercial disputes, buying or selling land/houses or personal injury matters. If you’re not sure whether a legal service can help your client’s legal issue, call them to ask what help they can provide