Free legal advice provides essential access to justice

Professor Tania Leiman, Dean of Law at the Flinders Legal Centre 10th anniversary celebration.

A unique and practical Flinders University clinic offers Law students real-world experience with lasting community impact.

A decade of providing free, independent and confidential legal advice to the public has underlined Flinders Legal Centre’s status as a vital resource in our community – and now this pivotal component of Law at Flinders University is making smart connections to the digital age.

Originally known as Flinders Legal Advice Clinic, which began in 2011, the Flinders Legal Centre provides clients with advice on such issues as financial loans and debt, employment contracts, relationships, car accidents, setting up a business, insurance, building, construction and accommodation – providing Flinders Law students with real-world experience that meets a crucial community need.

“We established the centre because we wanted our students to gain experience – but we also want them to understand access to- justice issues in our community,” says Professor Tania Leiman (GradCertEd ’10), Dean of Law at Flinders University.

“It’s not until you work inside the legal system that you realise the difficulties many people have obtaining sound legal advice. It’s complicated by lawyers’ fees being out of reach for many people. For many, there is nowhere else they can go.”

More than 350 Flinders Law students have undertaken clinical legal education placements through the Flinders Legal Centre, which has provided more than $3.5 million of free legal services – a powerful contribution to increase access to justice in our community.

“It started as an optional topic with capacity to take only small numbers of students each semester, but since 2020 it has been a core Law subject, which brings about 30 students to work in the centre each semester. Jo Milne has been Director of the Centre since 2013 and is also a supervising solicitor. She has helped countless law students transition to junior practitioners and is at the core of all the great work the Centre does.

“We have very robust policies and procedures for client management and there are many layers of support, providing our students with experience on giving high quality and pragmatic advice to people on real issues – making the vital connection between theory and the practical impacts that the law has on people’s lives.”

Now with bespoke offices and consultation rooms located in the Mark Oliphant Building at Flinders University’s Bedford Park campus, and using legal practice management software, the Flinders Legal Centre operations are modelled on those of a private boutique law firm.

“All people deserve competent, pragmatic, efficient legal advice but a lot of people can’t identify their issues as having a legal solution, or they have a complex mix of legal, financial and social problems that are intertwined. This is where we can help,” says Jo Milne.

People come to the service via a range of Flinders University student services and from many external referral avenues – including the Christies Beach Magistrates Court, the Marion and Onkaparinga councils, and other community legal centres – with very high levels of client satisfaction recorded.

“Our students have the time to listen to clients’ stories, time that other community legal services providers may not have due to the large numbers of people trying to access those resources – and the clients are very grateful to be heard,” says Professor Leiman.

“In a classroom, legal discussion may sound esoteric, but when students are talking with clients and trying to unravel the complexity of their situations, the students make connections between the theory they are learning and the important practical impacts that things like contract law have on people’s lives. This can be very transformational.”

The centre also has the flexibility to deliver special outreach programs to meet extreme need in regional South Australia, including a project on Kangaroo Island that provided vital support for the Bushfire Legal Help program in the wake of the devastating 2019/2020 bushfires.

Such results have seen the Centre earn significant respect within the legal sector. Several private law practices provide pro-bono assistance to the Flinders Legal Centre team for complex and difficult legal issues, and The Law Foundation of SA has supported it with funding since 2013.

“We are enormously grateful to the Law Foundation for their generous support over the past decade. It recognises the value that this university legal clinic provides to the community,” says Professor Leiman.

The Centre now aims to grow and provide more diverse services, including exploring legal tech opportunities. This aims to assist some of the more than 60 software applications, developed by Flinders Law students as part of the core topic Law in a Digital Age, to be commissioned and implemented for their clients.

Future philanthropic support will allow this new collaboration to grow and expand in response to demand – and increased funding will enable these apps to be implemented within the not-for profit community, increasing access to justice. “It will be an exciting next step when we can help to not only provide, but also support, accessible legal technology for community organisations,” says Professor Leiman.

Posted in
2023 Encounter Magazine College of Business, Government and Law Law

Leave a Reply