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    Shopfront law 

    Inner City Legal Centre: community law

    Darlinghurst Road's Inner City Legal Centre provides legal help for the underprivileged ... Law on a human scale ... Small staff, lots of pro bono volunteers ... Bold initiatives ... Jackie Keast reporting 

    WHEN most solicitors charge by the clock, the cost of legal advice can be prohibitive. So what about the legal rights of those who can't afford to hire a lawyer? 

    Not-for-profit community legal centres, like the Inner City Legal Centre on Darlinghurst Rd, are a vital component of the law and justice system.

    The ICLC has been offering inner-Sydney residents free shopfront legal advice for over 30 years. 

    "In some ways legal advice should be like the library. You should be able to come and get it," says Dan Stubbs, ICLC director. 

    Established in 1980, the ICLC got going when a group of local lawyers recognised that under-privileged people largely went without access to legal advice.

    They volunteered their time after work to help. Support grew and the ICLC received funding from the NSW Legal Aid Commission and pro bono support from city firms. Its first pro bono solicitor in 1981 came from the large city firm Allen Allen & Hemsley. 

    As well as offering free advice, the ICLC works closely with community organisations like the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre and Wayside Chapel to provide legal education and support for their workers and clients.

    "We see a lot of homeless people, we see a lot of people who are drug-affected or drug-addicted, Aboriginal people, and those with mental illness. They've got rights. Giving them legal services can assist them and even just knowing they have people in their corner can be really powerful for them," Stubbs told Postcode2011.

    The ICLC also offers a specialist service for members of the LGBTI community, extending beyond the Cross. The centre is the first legal service in the world to cater for intersex clients.

    The ICLC's core funding comes from both the State and Commonwealth government.

    ICLC director Dan Stubbs with volunteer law student Grace Zhou

    In recent years, government funding alone has not been enough to support all the services the ICLC provides.

    Eighteen months ago the centre established the ICLC Foundation to raise money for its projects, with former High Court judge Michael Kirby as its patron.

    The ICLC employs five permanent staff and has about 50 volunteer lawyers. Law students also volunteer to help with administration and research.

    "We couldn't keep the doors open without all of our volunteers," says Stubbs.

    The volunteer solicitors see around 1,500 people a year, on all sorts of matters - employment, family, civil and criminal law.

    Most of the advice sessions are aimed to equip clients to do as much as they can on their own legal matter. When a client needs further assistance the ICLC will often pass them on to a private firm to do the work pro bono

    There some cases that the ICLC will take on itself, specially public interest matters that have important implications for the whole community. 

    For example, the centre recently established a sex-worker legal service and has been successful in representing these workers in cases where employers have withheld pay.

    As a result there has been a significance difference to the way brothels are managed in the Cross. Stubbs adds: 

    "These are just businesses that should operate to the same level as any other business in this area. And if they do, it's good for the area." 

    In 2000, the ICLC assisted Edward Young, a man who was denied a war widow's pension on the basis that the Veteran's Entitlement Act excluded same-sex couples.

    The case was taken-up by the Human Rights Commission and later went before a UN tribunal, where it was ruled that Australia had breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

    While the Howard Government at the time never acknowledged this breach, the ICLC credits this case as a major precursor to the Rudd government's reform in 2009, which sought to equalise treatment for same-sex couples and their families under the law. 

    Politicians such as Commonwealth attorney general George Brandis and his former NSW counterpart, Greg Smith, are critical of community legal centres using their funding to campaign for law reform. In fact, the Commonwealth has placed an embargo on the political activity of CLCs. 

    For Dan Stubbs advocacy permeates all the of the work of the ICLC.

    "An inherent part of being a community legal centre is saying to government, 'There's a legal problem here, you can fix this and help a large number of people'.

    We're independent and we see legal problems coming through the door every day. It's crazy for us not to say to law makers, 'This law is a problem, and here's the evidence'." 

    See: ICLC website 

    Reporter: Jackie Keast

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