Insight: innovation driven from practical work on the ground

For Galit Aflalo, Community lawyer, an important part of working at the Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC) in Collingwood lies in being able to raise and challenge the systemic issues which often lay behind a person’s appearance before the courts.

‘For me it is about helping people. I think that is why I decided to study law and why I persisted through the torture of law school. It was really about recognizing injustice and working strategically to make a difference. Throughout the journey of my career, I have realised that community legal centres play a very important role in identifying and addressing the underlying reasons why people find their way into the justice system.

What we do is really powerful in terms of three key aspects of the legal process: Firstly through early intervention and preventing people from having legal problems by educating people about their rights and promoting access to advice and support at the earliest possible stage. The second aspect involves dealing with legal problems, not by a band aid approach, but looking more deeply into addressing the underlying causes. Finally, we have a powerful ability to reflect on our casework and engage in strategic advocacy about reforming laws and unfair practices so that things can change in the future. That brings me a lot of job satisfaction.

I have only been at the NJC for a very short time but being involved with the Fitzroy Legal Service and the NJC has been really rewarding. It is a really inviting and holistic space that encourages a therapeutic approach to social justice issues.’

Of course the work can be very difficult; Galit sees clients from all walks of life that are facing diverse legal problems. She sees how cuts to the funding of front-line services deeply impact her clients.

‘One of the most important parts of our work involves working collaboratively with non-legal services to address clients’ unmet needs. When there are a lot of cuts to services it makes it difficult for us to be able to deal with a number of other issues. In the City of Yarra, with house prices soaring and social housing providers under increased strain regarding funding, there appears to be very little affordable housing available for disadvantaged people solely reliant on Centrelink income. There are many reasons why people can’t simply move to another area, such as the availability of key support services, cultural and family connections and lack of affordable and accessible housing across our state. If someone doesn’t have a house, it can be really difficult for them to manage their day-to-day affairs, let alone deal with complex legal and non-legal issues.’

Galit says her vantage point as a lawyer at the NJC affords her a view into areas of the law which deserve reflection and reform.

‘The most disadvantaged and vulnerable people within society often have the most complex needs. Vulnerable people often encounter a multitude of barriers in seeking legal advice or even identifying a legal issue and often they only seek legal advice at a very late stage.

In order to make our justice system more equitable and accessible, we need to address the barriers that impact disproportionately upon the most vulnerable.’

Areas that deserve reform? Galit nominates two: diversion and housing.

‘We see many people accumulating a large number of fines where those fines are connected to difficult circumstances in people’s lives, for example someone that has left home because of family conflict or is living out of their car and receives parking fines. The number of fines can escalate out of control and become so crippling that a person can’t afford to pay for them and feel afraid to even deal with them. When people try to pay for the fines they are often unable to access payment plans with enforcement authorities (who often apply a strict and inflexible approach requiring a large upfront payment for a person to re-commence on the payment plan). For someone reliant on Centrelink income, making an upfront payment of $5,000 is simply impossible.’

Galit Aflalo

Galit Aflalo outside public housing in Collingwood.

‘Many people encounter barriers in seeking legal or financial advice, are unable to access payment plans to deal with the fines due to the rigid approach of regulatory authorities and often do nothing about these fines hoping that they will simply go away. Ultimately at the worst possible moment the Sherriff finds them, gives them a 7 day notice, often resulting in that person being bailed to go to court and the possible penalty of going to court is imprisonment.

We see an increasing number of people being brought before the court in these circumstances. A significant challenge is being able to explain to the court the person’s circumstances at the time of the fines and ask for the court to consider cancelling some or all of the fines on this basis. Those fines that are not cancelled will become part of an imprisonment in lieu payment plan which means that if a person misses a payment, they could be sent directly to jail without having an opportunity to explain the reasons for the missed payment at court.

A key question is whether our current system is the most effective way of dealing with fines. If we implemented a system which allowed for early intervention and a more therapeutic approach in addressing a person’s difficulties, we could create exponential benefits by preventing a person from incurring further fines, providing treatment that will significantly improve a person’s quality of life and creating important financial savings regarding the enforcement costs of the current system.’

Galit thinks that Victoria could learn from the use of Work Development Orders in New South Wales.

‘In New South Wales, vulnerable people who can’t afford to pay for fines, may be able to access a supported system where they can essentially work off that fine through consultation with therapeutic services to address difficult circumstances in their lives (such as psychology, drug and alcohol counselling). The system allows people to deal with underlying issues without having to go through any court process. That kind of benefit, for early intervention, access to therapeutic support and efficiency of resources, is really sensible.’

It is in the area of housing that Galit faces the biggest challenges but also makes the most difference.

‘There are a large number of legal issues that come from the insecurity and the instability of housing. For me, housing is a key access to justice issue, tenants do not often come to the tribunal, there are many systemic barriers to access to justice and I think it fits our mission to be able to really educate the community and empower our community members to assert their legal rights and seek advice at the earliest possible stage in a matter.’

On one tenancy case before the NJC, Galit helped a Sudanese woman retain her housing when a Centrelink payment problem meant that she was slated for eviction by the Department of Housing: ‘I can’t imagine what would have happened to her and her kids without having a house.’

‘One of the most important parts of our role is identifying the seemingly hidden issues underlying legal problems. In this case, Centrelink payment errors and mistreatment by the client’s housing officer led to an easily avoidable escalation of tenancy related issues. This is a cogent example of the importance of combining casework with systemic advocacy and education.

We need to empower our community members to understand and assert their legal rights. When there are problems and breakdowns, we need to identify the underlying issues, educate people about their rights to prevent these issues from re-occurring. and advocate for systemic change. We are committed to working with community partners to ensure that our legal system is fair, just and accessible to everyone.’