Australia's first free legal service

Australia's first free legal service

By the end of 1970, a group of practicing lawyers regularly volunteered their time and expertise in support of the Redfern Activists’ mission. The result was a 20 thousand dollar grant from the Federal Government for the first Aboriginal Legal Service in Australia, and indeed, the first ever free legal service in the country.

Volunteer groups of young law students also offered their time to arrange bail, interview Aboriginal people in the lock-up, and prepare defences cases. The goal was to provide representation, reduce incarceration and stop police harassment of Aboriginal people.

The service was Australia’s first free legal service, setting the model for mainstream community legal aid. The ALS elected a Council that included members of Aboriginal communities, which is a historically significant act of self-determination. The ALS was the first community controlled, free legal-aid centre with a shop front in Australia.

In early 1971, within the first twelve months of a 24-hour telephone service being offered, the service had handled over 550 cases, with the vast majority being criminal.

The ALS was the first organisation to provide a practical day-to-day service: protect the rights of Aboriginal people in police stations and courts; respond and reflect the needs of the then Redfern community; and was open to any Aboriginal person.

The social and individual bravery of those original Redfern Activists, which led to the successful establishment of the ALS inspired others. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people throughout Australia began their own steps towards solving community policing and legal problems confronting Aboriginal people.

In 1972 the Whitlam government pledged to provide representation for all Aboriginal people in all courts of law. This was a first. The number of ALS criminal and civil cases surged, revealing the wide scope of legal problems faced by Aboriginal people in Australia.

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