Medicare for the justice system: the NSW lawyers who cover 200,000 sq km to see their clients


Community legal centre outreach programs provide a vital service for remote areas but resourcing problems mean they could vanish any time. Article by Nino Bucci (Justice and Courts Reporter, The Guardian). Photography: Mike Bowers. Read the full story.

A man standing next to a ute at sunset.
Western NSW Community Legal Centre principal solicitor Patrick O'Callaghan. Photo: Mike Bowers/The Guardian.

    In small rooms at the back of the public library, or tucked away to the side of the local court, clients wait for the only free lawyer in town.

    It will be a month before this lawyer from the Western New South Wales Community Legal Centre visits again, as part of outreach programs that cover 200,000 square kilometres stretching from Dubbo past Bourke and north to the Queensland border.

    Nobody seems to think they will need this legal advice until they do; they take a loan from a bank to pay for a son’s funeral and a conflict arises over repayments; their husband, from whom they have been long separated, refuses to sign divorce documents; they withdraw money from their superannuation and are scammed online; their employer folds, without paying what they are owed.

    For the outreach program attended by Guardian Australia in May, lawyers travelled from their base in Dubbo on a 1,100km three-day loop through Nyngan, Cobar, Bourke, Brewarrina, Lightning Ridge and Walgett before heading home.

    The trip came amid concerns about a funding shortfall within the Aboriginal Legal Service and broader unrest about whether the Albanese government will be able to afford the wholesale reform of the community legal sector it hoped to achieve in opposition, before harsh economic realities set in.

    The outreach trip will also be the last for some time that is attended by a specialist family violence lawyer, as NSW government funding for that position ends on 30 June.

    A woman driving on a rural road at sunset.
    Francesca Cutri, Western Women’s Legal Support solicitor, drives between Bourke and Lightning Ridge during a trip to see her clients. Photo: Mike Bowers/The Guardian.

    On the frontline

    The community legal sector appears forever mired in near-existential crisis; the trip could have been at any time and there would have been a problem with resourcing.

    “That’s always a constant reality that we’re trying to battle and manage in terms of where we allocate resources,” Patrick O’Callaghan, the Western NSW Community Legal Centre principal solicitor, says. “The need has certainly always been out here in my 17 or so years at the legal centre.

    “This region is well known for having high rates of disadvantage, which then manifests [itself] in different ways, including domestic violence.

    “We’ve always been very conscious of wanting to be able to provide a service to meet those needs.”

    In Cobar, O’Callaghan met with Peter Griffiths, who says he has a long-running dispute with a bank about a loan that was taken out after the death of his son in a motorbike accident in Yea, Victoria, in 2005.

    Griffiths says he needed money to pay for the funeral, and to get his son home. He says repayments were being made but a dispute later arose with the bank about the outstanding amount. He now owes about $10,000, and has been using O’Callaghan’s team for more than two years to try and resolve it.

    While Griffiths had initially hoped to be able to pay the debt, he no longer knows if he can.

    “I’m getting a bit light in funds now, I don’t know if I could pay it off now,” Griffiths says. “There’s got to be a way around it.”

    Portrait of a man wearing a flannel shirt and a hat.
    Peter Griffiths, a client of Patrick O’Callaghan’s, at Cobar Library, Monday 15 May 2023. Photo: Mike Bowers/The Guardian.

    Read the full story.

    Reproduced courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd under the Open Licence.