For almost 50 years, community legal centres have built a powerful movement that challenges inequality and injustice, creates more equitable and fairer laws, and has reshaped how people access free legal help.
In 1970, in response to the continued injustice of colonial laws, institutional brutality and police harassment, a group of Aboriginal activists joined together to form the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service in Sydney, New South Wales. It was the first free shop-front legal centre in the country and was established with an underlying philosophy of Aboriginal community control and self-determination. As Gary Foley writes, “the repercussions of what this small group of Redfern activists achieved were felt nationwide”. The Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern was Australia’s first free legal service. Its model inspired the birth of community legal centres, which were subsequently established in Victoria.
In 1975 a group of lawyers, volunteers, academics, social workers and community activists met in Redfern to explore the concept of “community control of legal services”.
This group came together to advocate for the idea that everyone should be able to access justice, regardless of financial means. This was the impetus for the birth of community legal centres in NSW.
Two years later, in response to the scarcity of legal services for disadvantaged and marginalised people, the Redfern Legal Centre was established. The centre had one paid lawyer, supported by volunteers largely from the student body of UNSW. It provided free services to anyone who walked through the door, there was no means or merits testing. The centre was accountable to the community, to a committee led by community members, volunteers, lawyers and students. If there was no legal solution to injustice the centre fought for reform.
Generalist community legal centres soon developed in Parramatta and Marrickville with strong involvement from law students at Sydney and Macquarie University. In the 1980s Bob Ellicott QC helped to establish the Inner-City Legal Centre, which was supported by large law firms committing pro bono support to the centre. A fifth centre was opened at Kingsford by UNSW to provide opportunities for new law students to gain experience and to serve the community.
It soon became apparent that generalist community legal centres could not service all areas of legal need. Demand for assistance from the community in some areas required more focus and specialised response than generalist legal advice could provide. So, specialist community legal centres developed to cater to specific legal need and specific groups in areas including disability rights, immigration, tenancy, welfare rights, seniors rights, environmental law to meet community needs.
Centres realised that they needed centralised support for common issues, rather than working as individual centres. In 1990 NSW Community Legal Centre’s Secretariat was established after advocacy from centres. The secretariat supported the work of the centres and advocated on their behalf. The Secretariat became the Combined Community Legal Centres Group NSW in 1999, before changing its name and constitution to Community Legal Centres NSW in 2009. Community Legal Centres NSW is an independent peak body governed by a board elected by members and drawn from community legal centres. In 2018 its constitution was updated to enable board member positions from independent experts (not necessarily from community legal centres).
Community legal centres are now recognised and established as a core part of the legal assistance sector in NSW. The movement is still growing, and still committed to access to justice for all.
Timeline of community legal centres in NSW
1970: Police harassment of Indigenous people in Redfern led to the establishment of the first Aboriginal Legal Service. The service was unfunded and voluntary and run by academics and students from UNSW.
1975: Tenants’ Union of NSW opens.
1977: Redfern legal Centre opens.
1978: Macquarie Legal Centre opens and Redfern Legal Centre publishes The Legal Recourses Book (NSW).
1979: Marrickville Legal Centre opens.
1980: Inner City Legal Centre opens.
1981: Kingsford Legal Centre is established by UNSW and the Court Support Scheme opens.
1982: Women’s Legal Recourse Centre opens along with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre as the first specialist legal centres.
1983: The first edition of The Law Handbook, the successor to The Legal Recourses Book is published.
1983: The Welfare Rights Centre and Arts Law Centre opens.
1983: By this time community legal centres had been formally accepted as part of the legal assistance system. 35 received Commonwealth funding and Federal and State governments included community legal centre representatives on legal aid commissions and bodies.
1985: The Illawara Legal Centre, The Environmental Defenders Office and the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre opens.
1986: NSW Community Legal Centres’ Secretariat established with a grant from the NSW Legal Aid Commission. The secretariat’s role was to support the work of the Combined Community Legal Centres Group, an unincorporated body bringing together all NSW Centres.
1986: Accommodation Rights Service (TARS), South West Sydney Legal Centre (initially called Liverpool CLC), Blue Mountains Community Legal Centre, Consumer Credit Legal Centre, and Domestic Violence Advocacy Service all open. Intellectual Disability Rights Service also opens as part of Redfern Legal Centre.
1987: Macarthur Legal Centre (initially as Campbelltown CLC) and Refugee Advice and Casework Service open.
1988: Communications Law Centre opens with the support of PIAC.
1991: Commonwealth funding for Community Legal Centres almost doubled from $2.7 million to $5.4 million.
1991: Hunter Community Legal Centre opens.
1993: Hawkesbury Community Legal Centre, HIV/AIDS Legal Centre, National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, and Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre opens.
1994: Report of the Commonwealth Access to Justice Advisory Committee “Access to Justice – An Access Plan”.
1994: Disability Discrimination Legal Centre (NSW) and Working Women’s Centre NSW opens.
1995: The Commonwealth Government releasesit’s Justice Statement which includes significant funding increase to Community Legal Centres. In NSW this funding enable six new generalist centres.
1995: Intellectual Disability Rights Service separates from Redfern Legal Centre and becomes an independent community legal centre.
1996: North & North West Community Legal Service, Western NSW Community Legal Centre Inc., Mt Druitt & Area Community Legal Centre and Central Coast Legal Service open.
1999: Legal Aid Commission NSW issues revised NSW community legal centre funding program guidelines.
NSW Community Legal Centres Secretariat becomes Combined Community legal Centres Group (CCLCG).
1999: Albury Wodonga Community Legal Service, Shoalcoast Community Legal Centre and Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre open.
2000: Combined Community Legal Centres Group NSW is incorporated and merged with the NSW CLCs Secretariat.
Far West Community Legal centre opens in Broken Hill.
2002: National Pro Bono Resource Centre opens (initially auspiced by PIAC) and Women’s Legal Services NSW auspices DVCAS and WLRC.
2004: UTS Community Law and Legal Research Centre becomes an associate member of Community legal centres NSW.
2006: The joint Commonwealth and NSW Government review of community legal centres recommends increased funding to community legal centres, the implementation of a strategic service delivery model, and a greater role for the state peak body to resource community legal centres.
2008: The NSW Public Purpose Fund provides funding to 12 of the lowest funded community legal centres to conduct outreaches and targeted programs to particular client groups, and to Community Legal Centres NSW for two new programs: a Learning and Development / Sector Development Program, and an Aboriginal Legal Access Program.
2009 CCLCG changes name to become Community Legal Centres NSW.
2011: Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre (auspiced by Advocacy Law Alliance) commences operations, following a community campaign resulting in state and commonwealth Government funding.
2015: National Partnership Agreement (NPA) of Legal Assistance Services introduced. The commonwealth government now no longer directly funds individual community legal centres. Total funding is instead provided to each state and territory government to allocate. The NPA also results in a 30% cut in funds from July 1 2017.
2017: NSW Government commits $3m extra p.a. for community legal centres for the next two years, with a review to determine appropriate methodology.
2017: Commonwealth Government announces reversal of Government funding cuts.
2018: NSW Government initiates Cameron Review. The Cameron review supports the work of community legal centres and makes recommendations for increased funding. A new application process for 3 year funding is implemented.
Thiyama-Li Aboriginal Family Violence Centre becomes a member of Community Legal Centres NSW
2019: Outcomes of application for 3 year funding announced. All existing community legal centres are allocated funding for 3 years from 2019/20 to 2021/22.
International Social Services (ISS) Australia NSW office becomes a member of Community Legal Centres NSW.
2023: knowmore becomes a member of Community Legal Centres NSW.