Legal support milestone

Christine and Erskine Rodan with ECLC chief executive officer Michael Smith. Pictures: SUPPLIED.

By Mikayla van Loon

Over five decades Eastern Community Legal Centre (ECLC) has been a steadfast presence for those seeking legal support.

Celebrating 50 years of service to the east on Friday 17 May, it was a show of the collaborations, partnerships and dedication of staff to ensure legal help was not a luxury.

Following the growing community legal service movement of the 1970s, the Nunawading Legal Service, as it was first known, began in 1974 with Erskine Rodan at the helm.

“It was a handful of volunteers for the first couple of years and then they employed their first staff person in 1976,” ECLC chief executive officer Michael Smith said.

“It is just amazing to see the huge amount of support the Legal Centre has provided right across eastern communities for 50 years and how it’s grown and developed.

“The notion of supporting the whole person, not just their legal problem was there right from the start, but we’re able to do that now much more than we were in the early days.”

Mr Smith said community law, “it’s not a thing we can do alone” and so without the support from local government, health partners and other agencies, ECLC would not have been born.

“For many, many years, the Legal Centre was very much based in the inner east around Blackburn and Nunawading, the Whitehorse area,” he said.

“So some of the big steps would have been in about 2005 when we opened up our office in Boronia to service the outer east and that really gave us a stronger presence to support communities right across Knox, Maroondah and Yarra Ranges.”

It wasn’t until the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, something Mr Smith said he remembers “vividly”, that a need for legal help further into the Valley became apparent.

“We were straightaway up there in the Yarra Valley really supporting those communities right through the Yarra Glen and Dixons Creek and Healesville and all those communities were so affected by those Black Saturday fires,” he said.

“It just showed me how the community can come together and how we can leverage support from volunteers and partners and connections to really respond quickly.

“The beauty of the Community Legal Centre is it has that flexibility and adaptability to respond to meet those needs as they arise. Eventually, that led to the establishment of our Yarra Ranges Centre which opened in Healesville 10 years ago.”

That decade also brought with it a focus on a multidisciplinary approach, to not just have front-facing lawyers but advocates, social workers, financial counsellors and educators to provide a more holistic service.

Mr Smith said in his early days with ECLC “there was a sense that the community legal centres were a small add on to the legal sector”, that only small problems could be tended to or people who couldn’t afford a lawyer would seek support from a community centre.

That has since changed, and Mr Smith said it has quite evidently gone the other way.

“We are seen as an absolutely vital part of the legal support system right across the east. There are clients with really complex needs who come to us because they have nowhere else they could possibly go.

“So we continue to work in partnership with private lawyers and the broader legal assistance sector but we are seen as highly professional, highly skilled and experts in particular fields, particularly around family violence, particularly around elder abuse, particularly around some prevention work.”

Throughout five decades, Mr Smith said ECLC has “helped more than 85,000 individual clients” with the domino effect of those helped reaching a much higher number.

With over 300 people who attended the birthday celebration, Mr Smith said it just showed how important all the partnerships, networks, support and engagement has been throughout the eastern suburbs.

Mr Smith said, however, there would always be more opportunities to connect and have an impact, which will be the focus of the years ahead.

“We’d like to be doing more in schools. We’d like to be doing more to address family violence prevention, early intervention and response.

“We’d like to take some of our great programs that work in one part of the east and spread into other parts of the East. So there’s always more to do to meet those needs in our community.”

Whatever comes next, ECLC received a vote of confidence from its founder.

“Big things come from such a small beginning, and I congratulate the staff…and many of those that have persisted and motivated them,” Mr Rodan said.

“The next steps are going to be important and I know that you all (ECLC) will be able to step up and keep up the important work that you are doing.”