Community Legal Centre

Community Legal Centre

Community Legal Centres (CLCs) are independent organisations aiming to advance legal–and, by extension, social and political–equality by making the law accessible to the poor and otherwise marginalised in Australia. They provide legal advice to individuals and take on traditional casework. However, CLC workers and volunteers are also active in other, diverse, areas through which they attempt to realise systemic change. For example, they lobby for law reform, undertake test case litigation, critique police powers and behaviours, monitor prisons systems and conditions, and develop community education programs. These programs may include anything from published books and pamphlets to radio programs and conference presentations.



Community legal centres emphasise the demystification of the law and the empowerment of communities in their relation to the law, particularly by encouraging communities to be involved in their activities.[1] For example, they often adopt constitutions mandating close consultation with the communities they serve, and insist upon harnessing the skills and expertise of ‘non-lawyers’ (e.g. social workers, administrators, or ‘everyday’ people with good communicative or special language skills) as well as lawyers. Additionally, their education programs are often preventative: that is, they aim to give people skills to solve their own problems without recourse to lawyers.


Community Legal Centres are partly funded by a complex and variable mix of state and federal government monies, offered both directly (e.g. through grants) and indirectly (e.g. through legal aid). They are also funded by the proceeds of casework. However, they rely most heavily upon the efforts and support of extensive volunteer networks. Without the willingness of both lawyers and non-lawyers to staff them without payment, they would not survive.


CLCs first developed in Victoria in the early 1970s, but spread quite rapidly through the other states. There are currently more than 160 CLCs in operation across Australia (Noone 2001: 132). Although from the outset they shared some similarities with the already established American and British neighbourhood law offices, in their insistence upon effecting systemic change and their largely voluntary support base they had characteristics distinct from each. They can be understood to have grown out of broader concerns for social justice that gained momentum in the 1960s and which found expression in the anti-war and women’s movements, aboriginal rights campaigns, and other pushes for far-reaching social change in both the Australian and global contexts (Chesterman 1996: 11-43). However, CLCs are a unique expression of these social justice and protest movements and do not claim particular ties to any other campaigns. Furthermore, while some CLCs have developed close links with others, centres for the most part serve their own particular geographic or special interest communities. This means that throughout their history different CLCs have usually held common platforms in only general, rather than specific, terms.

When the first Victorian CLCs were established, they were often resisted by a legal establishment that was defensive about CLCs’ criticisms of the elitism or inaccessibility of the legal professions, suspicious of CLCs’ aims and methods, and concerned about protecting profits (Chesterman 1996: 69-70, 77-83; Noone and Tomsen 2006: 73; Greenwood 1994: 3-5). However, soon after the Fraser Liberal government came to power in December 1975, some members of the wider legal profession had begun to acknowledge the importance of CLCs in improving the public’s access to the law (Chesterman 1996: 87). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, CLCs consolidated their position in the Victorian and wider Australian legal landscape, forging (sometimes fraught) ties with different government and legal organisations (such as various state legal aid commissions).

Today, CLCs hold an established, if in funding terms sometimes precarious, place in the Victorian and wider Australian legal scene and have shaped the legal profession in various ways, although these are difficult to identify and quantify. For example, some larger Victorian law firms now permit–even encourage–employees to undertake some voluntary work, most often in the area of individual casework. This certainly testifies to wider community demands for adequate representation for all before the law, and to increasing pressures for law firms to be responsible ‘corporate citizens’, and the former development in particular may be attributed partly to the work of CLCs. However, the private legal profession has arguably been less responsive to CLCs’ attempts to bring about broader and more fundamental changes in the ways the law and lawyers operate.


  • Chesterman, J. Poverty Law and Social Change: The Story of the Fitzroy Legal Service. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996.
  • Greenwood, K. It seemed like a good idea at the time: A history of the Springvale Legal Service 1973-1993. Melbourne: Springvale Legal Service, 1994.
  • Jukes, J. and Spencer, P. 'Buying and Selling Justice: The Future of CLCs'. Reform 73 (Spring 1998), 5-10.
  • Nichols, David From the Roundabout to the Roundhouse - 25 Years of Kingsford Legal Centre. Sydney: The University of New South Wales 2006.
  • Noone, M. A. ‘The Activist Origins of Australian Community Legal Centres’. Law in Context 19 (2001), 128-137.
  • Noone, M. A. and Tomsen, S. A. Lawyers in Conflict: Australian Lawyers and Legal Aid. Sydney: The Federation Press, 2006.

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