The scarcity of affordable legal services for disadvantaged and marginalised people led to the establishment of Redfern Legal Centre in March 1977.
Law students and academics, lawyers, social workers and community activists united to establish RLC which became the first community legal centre in NSW and the second in Australia. Several suburbs were considered, but Redfern was chosen as the location of the Centre because the South Sydney Municipal Council was quick to offer rent-free use of the vacant Redfern Town Hall, as well as financial assistance.
From the outset, RLC developed a model of legal service delivery bringing together casework, community legal education (CLE) and policy or law reform action in response to the issues faced by clients.
RLC has always taken a holistic approach to clients' problems.
The Centre opened with just one paid staff member. Clare Petre was a social worker whose salary was provided by the local council. She had previously volunteered at a law centre in London, but had no other legal experience. Petre was supported by plenty of volunteers who shared expertise, passion and dedication to their cause.
Many of the early volunteers were products of the new law curriculum at the University of New South Wales, which was perceived as being quite radical at the time.
There was also a widespread sense of eagerness to utilise the changes to legal aid and law reform that had occurred under the Whitlam administration. Whitlam had also increased access to the legal profession through the availability of free tertiary education.
In 1977, volunteer lawyers from the University of New South Wales and private practice began to assist clients on two afternoons and five evenings per week.
The Centre’s recognition of the importance of CLE and law reform work spawned a wide range of projects including the establishment of the Law Handbook and Streetwise Comics, as well as the establishment of the Consumer Credit Legal Centre.
Mr Justice Nagle released his Report into the state of the prison system in 1978. Sentenced prisoners were deprived of access to legal services, so the widespread systematic abuse taking place in prisons went widely unreported. In light of this Report, RLC became an advocate for prison reform and went on to conduct litigation on behalf of prisoners. Eventually a prisoner’s legal service was set up by the Legal Aid Commission which allowed RLC to channel its efforts and resources into other important legal areas.
Early volunteers and clients
Virginia Bell was one of RLC’s early volunteers. She spent seven years as a solicitor at RLC, and during this time Bell joined John Terry in defending 53 people who were arrested during the inaugural Mardi Gras protest of 1978. After leaving RLC, Justice Bell was admitted to the New South Wales Bar and appointed a Senior Counsel before finally being appointed to the High Court in 2009. Justice Bell’s strong social conscience evidenced by her involvement in Women Behind Bars and the Prisoners’ Action Group contributed significantly to her selection as the fourth female High Court justice.
One of RLC’s first clients was Meredith Burgmann. At RLC’s 30th anniversary celebrations, Burgmann reflected on how different Australia and Sydney were in the 1970s when RLC was established.
Aboriginal people drinking in hotels in Redfern were subject to harassment by the police, as were gay men.
In 1977 Burgmann was knocked unconscious by a White Rhodesian racist at a demonstration against the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) Government’s refusal to allow black citizens legal rights. Burgmann decided to take legal action and sought assistance from RLC. With the help of John Terry in particular, her case was won. Burgmann went on to spend 16 years in NSW Parliament, and half of this time was spent occupying the position of President of the Legislative Council.
Growth of the Centre
By the mid 1980s, RLC’s scope had expanded to include a wide range of poverty law issues, particularly credit and debt, housing and domestic violence.
In the 1980s and 1990s RLC developed a model for domestic violence court assistance schemes which is now adopted throughout Australia.
RLC also represented clients at several high profile inquests including that of Sallie-Anne Huckstepp and David Gundy, an Aboriginal man shot by police when they raided his home in April 1989. During this period RLC also ran significant major consumer credit test case litigation in the Homefund and State Bank cases and was instrumental in the drafting of the new Residential Tenancies Legislation.
By Nicola Cooper, with thanks to Francis Gibson, Gordon Renouf and Jane Goddard.
Basten, John; Graycar, Regina; Neal, David. Legal Centres in Australia  UNSWLawJl 12; (1983) 6(2) University of New South Wales Law Journal 163.
Bell, Virginia. ‘You are never too old for community justice’. (2012) 37(1) AltJ 2.
Cunneen, Chris, Aboriginal-Police Relations in Redfern: With special reference to the 'Police Raid' of 8 February 1990, A report commissioned by the National Inquiry into Racist Violence, (1990), Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, Sydney.
Genovese, Ann. A Radical Prequel: Historicising the Concept of Gendered Law in Australia’ in Sex Discrimination in Uncertain Times by Margaret Thornton.
High Court of Australia website: http://www.hcourt.gov.au/justices/current/justice-bell
Pelly, Michael, Court gets a go-getter. 16 Dec 2008, The Australian.
Pelly, Michael, NSW Supreme Court farewells High Court appointee Virginia Bell. 20 Dec 2008, The Australian.
Stojanovich, Natasha, Virginia Bell: bringing more to the bench than gender. 10 Feb 2009, The Drum.