What to Expect as a Volunteer: Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What are CLCs and what do they do?

  2. Who are typical CLC clients?

  3. What sorts of people volunteer?

  4. What attributes and skills do volunteers need?

  5. Can students volunteer?

  6. What particular skills do lawyers need?

  7. Do volunteer lawyers need current practising certificates?

  8. What sorts of work do volunteers do?

  9. Is it different volunteering in a specialist CLC?

  10. What rights do volunteers have?

  11. What type of training will I receive as a volunteer?

  12. What obligations do volunteers have?

  13. What are the benefits of volunteering?

  14. How do I become involved?

  15. Where can I get further information about volunteer and pro bono opportunities at CLCs?

 

Q1 What are CLCs and what do they do?

CLCs are independent, non-profit, community-based organisations that provide free and accessible legal and related services to disadvantaged members of the community, and to people with special needs or who are for other reasons vulnerable and at risk.

There are around 200 CLCs nationally, in metropolitan, regional, rural and remote locations. In 2014/15, the top 3 specialist areas or client groups for CLCs were domestic/family violence, homelessness and family law.

CLCs form part of the broader legal assistance sector. There are four publicly funded legal assistance providers in Australia: CLCs, Legal Aid Commissions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services.

The CLC sector includes generalist CLCs that provide legal assistance in a wide range of areas of law for people in their local communities, including in relation to family law and family violence, credit and debt, consumer law, social security, migration, tenancy, discrimination, employment and child protection.

There are also specialist CLCs which provide services to a particular target group and/or in a particular specialist area of law. For example, there are specialist services for women, tenants, consumer and credit, welfare rights, refugees, older persons, children and youth, and people with disability, among others.

Community legal centres provide legal advice, legal information and referrals and casework. CLCs also utilise a range of early intervention and preventative strategies such as community legal education and community development, individual skill building, systemic advocacy and law and policy reform activities. More broadly, CLCs also play a key role in community engagement, developing and facilitating partnerships between legal assistance providers and legal and non-legal services, and developing and maintaining referral networks and protocols.

The service delivery model of CLCs is a holistic one - in addition to employing lawyers and providing legal services, their work is both responsive, in providing legal services as needed, and proactive, in that they attempt wherever possible to assist people in resolving the causes of their legal problems.

CLCs are unable to meet the demand for services from their communities. In the National Census of Community Legal Centres 2015, 159,220 people were turned away from CLCs. 67.3% of CLC respondents turned away people due to insufficient resources.

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Q2 Who are typical CLC clients?
Generally, clients are disadvantaged members of the community, people with special needs or who are for other reasons vulnerable and at risk. In the National Census of Community Legal Centres 2015, the top 3 specialist areas in the 2014/15 financial year were:

  • domestic/family violence;
  • homelessness; and
  • family law.

These clients may also seek people who are likely to seek assistance in areas such as family law, credit and debt, housing, tenancy law, employment, neighbourhood disputes and, social security matters and employment law, among others.

In the same Census report:

  • 15.3% of clients, on average, identified as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person;
  • 20.6% of clients, on average, identified as a person from a culturally and/or linguistically diverse background; and
  • 26.6% of clients, on overage, identified as a person with disability.

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Q3 What sorts of people volunteer?

CLCs have historically been built on the work and vision of volunteers who are often a fundamental part of the service that CLCs provide to the community. Volunteer assistance supplements and supports the work of paid CLC staff and is crucial to the survival of CLCs.

In the National Census of Community Legal Centres 2015, CLCs reported that across the sector: 7,124 volunteers contributed a total of 11,057.7 hours of work per week - totalling 575,000 hours across the 2014/15 financial year. CLCs benefit from the skills, experience and commitment of volunteers from both legal and non-legal backgrounds. The majority of volunteers are law students and lawyers.

To read about the wide range of volunteers in CLCs and how these volunteers expand the capacity of CLCs to deliver frontline services to communities and improve the fairness and effectiveness of laws, please read Working Collaboratively: Community Legal Centres and Volunteers, a NACLC publication which features a range of volunteer case stories.

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Q4 What attributes and skills do volunteers need?
Whether they have legal or non-legal backgrounds, volunteers should have a commitment to social justice and to the principle of access to justice. They should have a sense of identification with and understanding of the community sector. Other important attributes include:

  • a commitment to professionalism and the principles and obligations of volunteering;
  • a desire to learn and an ability to work as part of a team;
  • an ability to be non-judgmental and courteous with clients;
  • tolerance and patience in different or difficult situations;
  • the ability to make a commitment to the CLC;
  • an understanding of and willingness to empathise with clients who have comprehension difficulties such as communication disabilities, mental health or substance abuse issues, language or literacy deficiency.

Desirable basic skills include:

  • some understanding or experience of, or a willingness to learn, the legal areas in which the CLC provides legal advice and assistance to the community;
  • basic computer literacy
  • some understanding of government funded legal programs (eg Legal Aid) and not-for-profit legal and community organisations. Information about the legal aid system is set out in the law handbooks of each State and Territory.

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Q5 Can students volunteer?
Most CLCs welcome student volunteers. Where CLCs are affiliated with universities, students may be able to undertake internships for academic credit as part of a clinical legal education course. Other CLCs give students a particular opportunity to work with a solicitor in a mentor arrangement, and to undertake policy and casework, depending upon the volunteer student's interest and availability. Often a CLC will encourage volunteer student involvement from the 3rd year of their degree onwards.

Placements may also be available during university breaks. It is important to note that some CLCs are very well known among students and it may be difficult to obtain a volunteer position. Do not be discouraged. If you are not prepared to be placed on a waiting list, there are many other volunteer opportunities at other CLCs. Be persistent and proactive in seeking your volunteer experience.

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Q6 What particular skills do lawyers need?
Volunteer lawyers usually undertake responsibilities in accordance with levels of training and experience. While desirable, it is generally not necessary for volunteer lawyers to have prior legal experience or to be currently practising in the legal areas which generalist CLCs provide legal advice and assistance. Volunteer lawyers are, however, expected to be committed to learn new areas of law and are often asked to inform their clients at CLCs that they are not experts in the area of law in which they are providing advice.

Some CLCs have specialist advice nights which may require, or prefer, their volunteer lawyers to have some experience or at least interest in that legal area in order to advise clients. Different CLCs have different policies regarding volunteer lawyers so potential volunteer lawyers should always seek clarification from the particular CLC as to their requirements.

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Q7 Do volunteer lawyers need current practising certificates?
CLCs operate under the same rules as the private legal profession. Most are covered by a national professional indemnity insurance scheme that demands compliance with rigorous practice guidelines.

Centres that are part of the professional indemnity scheme have standard risk management guidelines obliging volunteers who provide legal advice to hold a current practising certificate. There may be opportunities for those without practising certificates to assist in other ways.

Currently most jurisdictions offer free or reduced fee volunteer practising certificates to lawyers who volunteer at a community legal centre, and who do not hold any other type of practising certificate. Please contact your local Law Society or regulatory authority for details.

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Q8 What sorts of work do volunteers do?
Different CLCs have different policies regarding the involvement of volunteers. It is important to contact the centre to discuss the role and volunteering opportunities at that particular CLC. The work of volunteers will typically be coordinated and overseen by CLC staff.

CLCs may offer opportunities for law and social work students, lawyers, social workers and others with skills that can help the CLC perform its functions, such as language and cross-cultural skills, social welfare work experience or training. They may also recruit representatives of their volunteers and/or seek people from their community who have experience, knowledge or skills that will be useful to their board of management.

Volunteer students are often required to assist with administrative and reception work as well as initial client contact. Depending on areas of interest and expert, students might also be involved in:

  • conducting initial client interviews, and discussing factual scenarios with staff lawyers and volunteer lawyers;
  • assisting with policy advocacy and law reform work;
  • assisting with community legal education and development;
  • responding to general inquiries about the CLC and its services;
  • referring clients to appropriate community and government agencies;
  • case management, maintaining client files and documentation;
  • assisting in advocacy work of staff lawyers (including attending courts and tribunals);
  • drafting letters and other legal documents;
  • researching legal issues, administrative procedures and relevant policy areas; and
  • maintaining CLC legal resources, loose leaf services and periodicals.

Students who are not admitted to practice must defer to volunteer and staff lawyers for the provision of actual legal advice and must inform clients that they are not qualified to give legal advice but will refer them to a lawyer or arrange for a lawyer to contact them.

Volunteer lawyers may be on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly roster to attend evening shifts in order to advise clients. Some CLCs are more flexible than others in accommodating lawyers and legal advisers with an interest, but not necessarily, a strong background, in a CLC speciality area. Experienced volunteer lawyers may be involved in mentoring and guiding volunteer students and volunteer lawyers with less experience.

Non-legal volunteer staff, including volunteer students, may also be rostered and work with employed CLC staff to provide telephone referrals to the public, arrange bookings for legal advice nights, prepare interview, briefing or file notes, conduct follow-up tasks on client matters such as preparing draft letters and conduct administrative tasks.

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Q9 Is it different volunteering in a specialist CLC?
Student volunteers in specialist CLCs that require particular skills and background knowledge (eg. an understanding of issues for people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence or knowledge of the operation of the criminal justice system or the courts), may be required to show evidence of experience and/or undertake specialist training courses and be provided by the CLC with ongoing support. Specialists CLCs can provide particularly interesting and hands-on experience for student volunteers, but it is very important that students are not placed in situations that they are not equipped for. As a general rule, it is recommended that prospective student volunteers make inquiries into the training programs for volunteers at CLCs.

Lawyers and legal advisers with an interest, but not necessarily a strong practising background, in a CLC specialty area may be welcomed where the centre has the resources and ability to provide training, support and supervision, and subsequent review of advices. It is recommended that volunteer lawyers have some expertise in or be prepared to learn more about the areas that the CLC advises upon. Clients can present daunting and difficult legal problems to CLCs that may overwhelm new volunteer graduates and lawyers without the relevant expertise. Back up support should always be available from other volunteers or CLC staff solicitors. If in doubt, ask for advice or guidance.

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Q10 What rights do volunteers have?
Volunteers are not covered by award conditions or workplace agreements but they do have rights, some of which are prescribed by legislation and some of which are the moral obligations of a CLC working with volunteers. Basic rights include:

  • being given accurate information about the CLC and orientation to its operations;
  • sufficient training to do their job;
  • working in a healthy and safe environment;
  • reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses incurred on behalf of the CLC (this normally excludes travel costs between home and the CLC);
  • a copy of the organisation's volunteer policy and any other policy that affects their volunteer work if requested;
  • not being asked to do the work of paid staff at the CLC during any industrial dispute;
  • not being asked to undertake work that is unethical or contrary to their professional obligations;
  • conducting volunteer work to agreed working hours;
  • having access to a grievance procedure;
  • being adequately covered by insurance.

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Q11 What type of training will I receive as a volunteer?
Many CLCs provide orientation/induction and/or training to volunteers on specific areas of law, as well as core requirements for the legal practice. In the National Census of Community Legal Centres 2015, CLCs reported offering orientation/induction and/or other training in the following areas:

  • centre policies and procedures;
  • client confidentiality;
  • conflicts of interest;
  • training in particular areas of law;
  • cultural awareness/safety training;
  • interviewing skills;
  • training in the client database;
  • legal research skills;
  • working with people with disability;
  • mental health literacy training; and
  • community development principles

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Q12 What obligations do volunteers have?
At some CLCs, volunteers are required to commit to at least one shift (commonly around four hours per week), or to commit to regular attendance for a minimum period of three to six months. Other obligations include:

  • respecting and maintaining the confidentiality of their clients and the CLC's information;
  • respecting the rights, dignity and culture of others and clients;
  • acting responsibly and, if reasonably directed by a paid staff member of a CLC, following such direction;
  • becoming familiar with and following any policies or procedures of the CLC including the risk management guidelines applied as part of the Centre’s professional indemnity insurance scheme.

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Q13 What are the benefits of volunteering?
Benefits reported by volunteers at CLCs include:

  • accelerated professional development and broadened career paths - development of invaluable skills because of the independent, client-focused and practical nature of CLC volunteer work, and realisation of a larger range of career options than previously considered and new insights what kind of lawyer they wanted to be;
  • new legal skills and challenges - opportunities to work in different areas of law areas, and hence gain new skills and challenges;
  • genuine satisfaction from helping people solve their problems, from working in a team and from the knowledge that their volunteer contributions are part of the development of a fair and accessible legal system; and
  • building networks and friendships - meeting like-minded individuals, broadening both personal friendships and professional networks.

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Q14 How do I become involved?
Work out which CLC you are interested in and where your skills are appropriate. This website provides contact details and indicates which CLCs are currently calling for volunteers. In some instances, you will be directed to visit the CLC's website to see if volunteer opportunities are available. You might also need to contact some CLCs directly to determine if volunteering opportunities are available.

Note, that intakes of volunteers may be at specific times of the year and for a very few CLCs, there can be waiting lists of up to a year for volunteer positions.

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Q15 Where can I get further information about volunteer and pro bono opportunities at CLCs?
You can obtain further information about CLCs from the National Association of Community Legal Centres, or from your state or territory's peak CLC body website (see below).

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Site Last Updated: 10 February 2017

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