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Giddings, Jeff; Hook, Barbara; Nielsen, Jennifer --- " Legal services in rural communities: Issues for clients and lawyers" [2001] AltLawJl 19; (2001) 26(2) Alternative Law Journal 57

Legal Services In Rural Communities: Issues for clients and lawyers

What affects the provision of legal services in rural, regional and remote communities?

Jeff Giddings, Barbara Hook and Jennifer Nielsen[*]

This article considers the ability of people living in rural, regional and remote Australia (we will use the term ‘rural’ to cover ‘rural, regional and remote’) to access legal services. Surprisingly little has been written about rural legal services in Australia. Much of the writing on rural justice issues relates to criminal law with little attention being paid to family and civil law. The purpose of this article is to highlight issues which members of rural communities face when they seek to access legal and related services. It considers these issues from the perspectives of both clients and lawyers. The use of information technology to deliver legal services is also considered.[1]

In preparing this article, two of the authors (Barbara and Jennifer) have drawn on their experiences as practitioners in and members of rural communities. Many of the observations made in the article come from direct experience. After moving to Northern New South Wales in 1992, Jennifer practised for two years in a local firm (one of the few women lawyers in the region at the time). She was active in the establishment of the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre and is a long-term member of its Management Committee. Since 1994, Jennifer has worked as an academic in the Law School at the Lismore campus of Southern Cross University.[2] Recently, she and some colleagues undertook an analysis of the differences between rural and metropolitan legal practice.[3] Barbara practised as a solicitor in Broken Hill in New South Wales for five years, mainly in the areas of family law and criminal law but as part of a general practice. Since mid-1999, Barbara has worked as an academic at Griffith University Law School with responsibility for a Clinical Legal Education Program which provides family law advice and assistance to people in the Hervey Bay and Tara regions of Queensland.[4]

We found that our experiences had much in common — such as the closeness of communities, the extra care needed to maintain confidentiality of client matters and a greater likelihood of there being a conflict of interest in our work. There was also a lack of accessible and appropriate community support services and frustration with the lack of accessible court and tribunal services.

There were also marked differences between and within the communities. And this is of itself important in developing an understanding of the needs of rural communities. Just as city-based communities are not homogenous, so too rural communities are unique from one another and contain enormous diversity. This diversity is too often overlooked in the methods of policy makers and city-based service providers.

Recent background

The 1980s and 1990s were clearly decades of transition for Australian rural communities. Factors including population loss, the withdrawal of government and other services, the impacts of globalisation, industry deregulation, low commodity prices, high interest rates through the late 1980s and early 1990s, serious droughts and floods all contributed to perceptions of crisis in rural Australia.[5]

In 1995, the Justice Statement released by the Keating Labor government identified the need for enhanced access to legal services for people living in rural Australia. With 4.8 million Australians living in rural areas, ‘[l]ack of services has been identified as a significant rural problem’.[6] Particular reference was made to the ‘clearly identified need for appropriate and accessible community-based legal services for the more than 2 million Australian women living in rural and remote areas’.[7]

The Justice Statement announced funding for a wide range of initiatives including outreach programs and specialist legal advice for rural and Indigenous women and additional resources for Legal Aid Commissions for family and civil law cases.[8] Unfortunately, 1996 saw the newly elected Howard government withdraw funding for many of these initiatives[9] and announce major reductions in Commonwealth legal aid funding to start in 1997/98.

While funding announced in the Justice Statement for women’s legal services, Indigenous women’s legal programs and rural women’s outreach was maintained, the impact on the legal aid sector as a whole was very negative. In addition to losing promised extra funding for family and civil law cases, legal aid commissions suffered overall funding reductions. While legal professional bodies, judges, members of the community sector and various commentators condemned the funding cuts, the federal government initially appeared to take little notice of these concerns.

These funding cuts brought into question the future of Australia’s ‘mixed model’ of legal aid service delivery, a model described by National Legal Aid[10] in 1994 as vital to ensuring that those Australians living outside metropolitan areas would be able to receive legal aid services.[11] The mixed model involves a range of legal aid services being delivered by private lawyers, salaried staff in legal aid commissions and community legal centres (CLCs).[12] Research has indicated that significant numbers of private law firms have stopped or are considering no longer doing legal aid work because of what they consider to be inadequate fees.[13] The limited access of people in rural communities to legal aid commissions and CLCs may have meant that the trend of private lawyers moving out of legal aid work has impacted disproportionately on rural communities.

While the past five years has seen Australian politicians pay increasing attention to the needs and interests of people living in ‘the bush’, moves to enhance law-related services in rural communities have been relatively limited. There have been some recent federal initiatives aimed at improving legal service delivery in rural areas. In 1999, the Federal Attorney- General, Daryl Williams, restored some of the legal aid funding removed after 1997/98.[14] Williams has also supported the development of community-based legal centres, particularly in rural Australia. An $11.4 million ‘Rural and Regional Network Enhancement Initiative’ was announced in the 1998/1999 Federal Budget[15] which included the establishment of six new CLCs in rural Australia[16] and the development of a national service to provide phone and internet advice on family law and child support matters.[17] A further five new regional CLCs were announced in the 1999/2000 Federal Budget.[18] There has also been some interest at a State level with the Victorian Law Reform Committee commencing an Inquiry into Legal Services in Rural and Regional Victoria during 2000.[19] The inquiry is due to report in May 2001.

Legal needs of rural people

Many people in rural communities face special issues regarding access to legal services beyond the legal needs they share with people living in metropolitan areas. Regional, rural and remote communities are attracting more specific attention as a group from government decision makers, no doubt due to the increased significance of their votes in federal and State elections. Despite this, there has developed a tendency to perceive those in rural communities as having uniform characteristics and therefore uniform needs. While there are some common needs and experiences, there is also a diverse range of issues facing individual members of these communities.

Geographic isolation

Distance and transport affect the ability of people to access face to face legal services. Lack of adequate and affordable public transport, the need to travel significant distances and the added expense involved all contribute to access difficulties. Rural communities also experience social isolation, a lack of appropriate and accessible services, and are pegged with the ‘redneck’ oryokel’ image – an image sometimes carrying the preconception that ‘yokels’ don’t need or deserve services at all.

In a family law context, Rosemary Hunter has noted that ‘Queensland country clients travelled the furthest distances on average to reach their lawyers. In all rural areas, clients often travelled further afield than their own town or the closest large town to find a family lawyer.’[20] Various extreme weather conditions, including floods and cyclones, may also hinder the ability of people to consult lawyers. For those clients with no choice other than to look outside their community for legal assistance due to conflicts of interest, lack of available expertise or other reasons, the geographical isolation is particularly problematic.

Assumptions about rural communities

A significant factor precluding appropriate access to legal services by rural communities is the homogenisation of the rural identity. The cultural diversity of rural communities — in terms of ethnic and/ or religious background, sexual orientation, ability, age, gender and so on — is not reflected in the range of services provided.[21]

Services provided for ‘special’ groups are generally proportionate to their presence in rural areas. This tends to mean that Indigenous communities face difficulties accessing services, let alone culturally appropriate ones, due to continued daily racism, social isolation from towns, extreme poverty, high levels of violence against women, children and youth, over and under policing in communities, and the failure of the legal system to respect their cultural needs.[22]

Those from non-English-speaking backgrounds face difficulties accessing qualified interpreters and language- appropriate services. Along with Indigenous Australians, they face racism in their communities and Hanson-inspired vilification and violence. For instance, in April this year, a man was arrested in the northern NSW town of Casino, for allegedly threatening an Aboriginal family with a baton, while dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The man is alleged to have threatened that he would be ‘taking care of all the niggers’.[23]

Women from all cultural backgrounds face local sub-cultures especially in the area of domestic violence.[24] Police and lawyers often socialise with the women’s husbands and may respond to family violence issues in an offhand manner. Women face difficulties due to community antipathy towards ‘domestics’, the public shame of being part of ‘a domestic’ and the lack of ever feeling safe because police are often quite some distance away — if they answer a phone call for help in the first place.[25] Further, the economic contribution of the ‘woman on the land’ remains undervalued.[26]

Gay men and lesbians suffer extreme sub-cultures of homophobic abuse and violence from which there is little escape apart from leaving town. Young people, people with mental health conditions, or people with disabilities, generally do not have access to appropriate services and facilities. There simply may be no one in the community from whom members of groups facing discrimination can receive face to face support and assistance. Even though it may be possible to contact legal services to complain about the discrimination and other treatment meted out against gays, lesbians, young people, and people with all forms of disabilities, local sub-cultures may make these mechanisms unworkable.

Access to free and reduced-fee legal services

Legal and related services are also difficult for rural communities to access because either they simply do not exist or, if they are present, are inadequately funded or not designed to meet an individual client’s needs. While many rural practitioners provide significant free (pro bono) and reduced-fee services, such services may not reach those most in need. Access to free services is limited by the smaller nature of many rural legal practices. Despite the growing presence of Legal Aid Commissions, Aboriginal Legal Services and CLCs in rural communities, these services remain under-funded with a consequent impact on their ability to truly meet community need.[27]

Rural communities tend to be facing economic hardship, and thus have a lowered capacity to afford legal services, as compared to those in metropolitan areas.[28] This is made worse due to the fact that running actions in rural areas involves additional expense (an issue considered further below). Practitioners may not offer different payment options to ensure clients can afford their services. Even in pro bono matters, the lack of accessible funds to pay disbursements may limit the action that can be taken for a person. Rural firms, tending to be small in size, cannot afford to cover these costs where there is no guarantee of payment. Current legal aid policies — for instance the difficulty in obtaining funding for summary trials in Queensland, and the $10,000 cap on grants of aid in family law matters — exacerbate the problem.[29]

Lack of appropriate services

Members of ‘special’ groups are too often expected to rely solely on metropolitan-based services to meet their particular needs. While this reliance is not inappropriate in itself, existing metropolitan-based services are currently unable to adequately meet the needs of such groups. For instance, women from the NSW Northern Rivers region interviewed in 1995 who used metropolitan-based telephone advice services had found them difficult to access with some referrals to locally based community services being inappropriate.[30]

Local knowledge and adequately funded community- based services, then, are crucial to ensuring quality for rural clients.[31] For example, a chamber magistrate in the Northern Rivers region was renowned for his rudeness to women, for keeping his office door open while women were seeking an apprehended violence order (AVO) from him, and for allowing other court staff to come and go throughout interviews.[32] A woman who had been advised by a metropolitan-based service to see her local chamber magistrate to apply for an AVO would indeed end up extremely distressed and disillusioned by the potential consequences of that advice despite its legal accuracy.

More often than not, the expertise required to meet the needs of these special groups is not present amongst rural legal communities. Lou Schetzer notes that young people’s needs were not being adequately met in rural areas through the lack of separate regional Children’s Court facilities and the misunderstanding by local lawyers of the ‘particular legal and social issues that affect children and young people coming before the courts’.[33]

It may well be unrealistic to assume that the full range of specialist expertise required in a rural community can ever be present. The challenge then is to provide a scheme of legal services that appropriately meets the full range of needs within rural communities. Telecommunications is seen as part of the answer but it would not ‘be fair for rural communities to have technological communication as their only source of service delivery’.[34] Technology will certainly play a part in overcoming the disadvantage of clients in rural areas but it must be used within a setting that also offers accessible and affordable face-to-face community-based legal services.

Choice of lawyers/courts/services

There is often limited choice of solicitors in many rural towns, and conflicts of interest may preclude many community members using them.[35] Accessing court and tribunal facilities can be made difficult because they either do not sit regularly enough or do so too far away. More often than not, urgent matters cannot be dealt with locally and metropolitan-based or regional registries must be used. Generally, alternative dispute resolution facilities are also not present or not affordable. Locally based government and community sector services tend to cover unrealistic geographical areas and are under-resourced with staff often stretched to the limit. Community-based corrections facilities tend to be limited or non-existent such that offenders are more likely to be imprisoned, thereby being further isolated from family and community.[36]


Rural communities have smaller population bases, and consequent close connections between members increasing the importance of sub-cultures and conformity to community values. People’s personal affairs are more prone to public scrutiny because of the greater likelihood that people know one another or are a ‘friend of a friend’. Relatively innocuous personal details may be more than enough to identify a person in casual conversation. Going to a solicitor can of itself be a public event, causing many to travel significant distances just to escape their neighbour’s attention. Court appearances can be more traumatic as ‘half of [the town] is up the back, ears strained and listening to you go to pieces’.[37] Court matters are also more likely to attract attention from local media. The protection of confidentiality is both crucial and problematic.

Issues facing rural lawyers

Many rural lawyers live and work within communities in economic decline, dealing with clients whose lives are made more precarious by events such as floods, droughts, bush fires and other natural disasters. The capacity of such clients to pay for legal services is often limited.

Many challenges face lawyers working in rural Australia. Generally, rural practitioners experience inflated costs, limited opportunities for specialisation and limited access to legal information resources and services. Further challenges include community attitudes and expectations, ethical issues, limited infrastructure, difficulties in achieving economies of scale in the delivery of legal and other services and geographic remoteness.

There are of course, aspects of rural legal practice that some lawyers find very attractive. In a 1999 article, Bill Chestnutt, a barrister practising in rural Western Australia identified that rural lawyers in that State were finding there was ‘plenty of work in the bush’. Chestnutt also reported ‘far less difficulties with bad debts, citing as the reason for this the inherent honesty of country folk’. Few rural lawyers interviewed by Chestnutt had difficulties finding administrative staff and most enjoyed the casual country lifestyle.[38] Rural legal practice also presents significant opportunities for relatively inexperienced lawyers who can assume major practice responsibilities at a relatively early stage of their careers.[39]

Community attitudes and expectations

In a useful English book on rural access to the law, Blacksell, Economides and Watkins note:

Rural Justice is a concept which also highlights a tension within the modern legal profession which may be expressed in terms of conflicting professional goals: the ‘service ideal’ versus the profit motive. Solicitors working as sole practitioners in rural areas may be portrayed as the last bastions of generalist, small-scale, legal practice and the custodians of true professional values.[40]

Rural lawyers are usually high profile members of their communities, involved with various associations and clubs at the highest level. Consider the difficulty of saying to a client ‘I won’t act for you if you can’t pay’ and then sitting on a committee with them in the evening. Each day many rural lawyers have to balance the service ideal with making a living.

In rural Australia, these lawyers may be found working above and beyond the call of duty in a diversity of professional settings. They go from defending alleged criminals to acting in business transactions, visiting the dying, doing the usual deals on real estate purchases and sales, leading the community in legal education, advising public officials, working at the school canteen and chasing up the young client who is afraid of going to court, to collecting clients before court to ensure they will attend.

Being ‘the lawyer’ in a small rural town makes you the model citizen overnight — it is not uncommon for people to collect on your verandah on Saturday mornings (early!!!) to get advice on drink driving charges, stop you in the street to talk about their daughter’s family law case, interrupt your favourite movie so you can help them draft consent orders in a child contact dispute, and expect that you will provide countless volunteer hours towards any and all community groups in the area. Knowing how to deal with clients who are neighbours or friends as well as others seeking to waylay you at the supermarket on a Saturday morning is a skill which is not taught but learned.

While seeking to fulfill this service ideal, rural lawyers need to consider their personal needs including privacy and safety. It can be too easy for clients and others in a small community to underestimate the need for a rural lawyer to be just a member of the community and not a lawyer. The establishment and effecting of personal boundaries in such a way that encourages ongoing work while not leading to ‘burn-out’ is integral to the work of rural lawyers.

Safety for rural lawyers and their families can also be a real issue especially for those involved in acrimonious family law disputes or highly emotive criminal matters. On rare occasions community closeness may lead to the targeting of lawyers and their families by angry or disillusioned clients. Clients know where their lawyers live and where and with whom they socialise. Threats of violence may be more of a concern than would be the case in a more anonymous metropolitan area.

The smallness of a community and its close ties also affect the provision of professional services. Protection amongst professionals is augmented in this setting. A good example of this is the difficulty experienced in running medical professional negligence claims in rural areas. Although in some regional centres there are medical practitioners qualified to provide most — if not all — of the expert evidence required to support such claims, there tends to be reluctance amongst the local medical profession to do so. Thus clients are forced to spend greater amounts in disbursements for expert evidence, as they must go to major metropolitan centres to obtain relevant reports. They also suffer the added inconvenience of having to travel outside of their region for these purposes.

Limited infrastructure

Limited access to court and tribunal facilities impacts significantly on the work of rural practitioners. In particular, access to tribunals is limited. Filing documents is both more expensive and cumbersome and urgent applications are significantly more difficult to initiate and complete. Further, applications may require the appointment and expense of a metropolitan agent. In addition, circuit sittings by Courts impact directly on rural legal practice as there are intense ebbs and flows in the practitioner’s appearance work. Work demands during circuit sittings are extremely intense.

When courts and tribunals undertake circuit visits to a region, the case lists tend to be very full. Lawyers feel institutional pressure to utilise informal alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and substantial pressure can be exerted on lawyers and clients alike to settle cases with a view to ensuring the court or tribunal can get through the list. Often only the cases with major issues in dispute which cannot be settled will go to a full hearing.

Many professional services are just not available in rural areas, such as a full range of accredited legal interpreters and specialist medical practitioners. There can also be issues regarding the coordination of visiting services. While a circuit court may be making its half-yearly visit to the region within a month, the visiting hospital psychiatrist may not be due for another six weeks. It is often difficult to access alternative dispute resolution processes because such services are either not available or are rendered unaffordable to clients because metropolitan services must be used. There are likely to be further moves in the area of on-line dispute resolution services.[41]

Difficulties in achieving economies of scale

The limited number of lawyers practising in many regions of Australia can make legal practice more problematic. The economic decline of many regions makes legal practice less lucrative leading to increased workloads. Conveyancing work in rural areas tends not to be as lucrative as in cities because of the lower property values. Further, the recognition of licensed conveyancers in some States has reduced this ‘bread and butter’ legal work. Rural practitioners tend not to have the same capacity or opportunities to create new markets as city-based practitioners due to their limited client base impacting on the viability of particular areas of practice.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, there has been a significant trend towards specialisation of legal practice.[42] Small firm sizes, the lack of large institutional clients and the diverse nature of legal issues facing clients all limit the ability of rural lawyers to specialise. Competition for institutional clients is significant and clearly such clients have long been important to the viability of rural legal practices.[43] When such clients do change law firms, this leads to massive conflict of interest issues.

Rural practitioners also face professional development issues in terms of their access to continuing legal education. The professional isolation of rural lawyers tends to encourage lawyers and firms to work together and share educational resources as well as endeavouring to attract education providers to their region. The lack of adequate libraries has long been cited as a difficulty of rural legal practice.[44] The availability of on-line research tools and services has addressed this to a considerable extent and state law societies play an important role in quickly getting information to rural practitioners through a range of media.

Ethical issues

Rural lawyers are faced with significant ethical dilemmas because of the lack of service providers in rural areas. In a series of interviews with Australian lawyers about ethical issues, Debra Lamb found that rural lawyers are regularly faced with difficulties in this area. A rural lawyer interviewed by Lamb stated, ‘It is impossible to avoid conflict situations, as there are only a limited number of solicitors practising in the country’. The lawyer also acknowledged that ‘from the lawyer’s point of view, in a small town you can’t afford to give away too many clients’.[45]

Legal issues involving high profile members of a small community are very likely to raise important conflict of interest issues. Rural practitioners acting for more than one party involved in a matter must obviously set clear ground rules for their continuing to act and anticipate circumstances which would oblige them to cease to act. Marginal conflicts are far more common and less easily resolved often because there is social pressure to do the work. For instance, it is common practice in some areas to act for both parties in a conveyance because there isn’t another solicitor in town. The personal and professional reputation of rural practitioners is quite important, as informal community networks are a significant source of work.

Confidentiality is obviously another key ethical issue within small communities. Client confidentiality is often of great concern to women given the likelihood of existing professional relationships between their male partners and the local solicitor.[46] Apart from ensuring that the lawyer respects client confidentiality, there may be serious client concerns about non-professional staff meeting the same standards. Even if client concerns about confidentiality can be addressed, there may be issues of embarrassment or fear, which inhibit the client in obtaining legal advice.

An example of this is a young client who had been charged with a criminal matter. The client knew the solicitor they wanted to consult but was afraid that the moment they phoned the office or made an appointment a number of the support staff would be aware that there was a legal problem. Issues for this young person were embarrassment, the support staff being good friends of the client’s family, and fear of the legal process and social stigma attached to criminal proceedings. The problem was solved by a meeting with the solicitor outside of the office and a file not being officially ‘made up’ until the young person had told their family.

Geographic isolation

Rural practitioners are likely to be required to travel further and more often. First, there is travel to metropolitan centres to attend matters that for different reasons cannot be heard in the region. Second, travel is required in following the circuit sittings of courts and tribunals in (and outside of) the region. Those practising in rural communities commonly travel significant distances. Such travel is not only time consuming but represents a significant health and safety risk.

It is common for rural law firms to extend their practices into other communities through the establishment of branch offices. It is usual that one solicitor will travel to the office on a regular basis and deal with legal matters as well as the administrative and procedural issues of running an office. As an example, a solicitor in western New South Wales made a 400 kilometre round trip at least once every month to service a branch office in an Indigenous community. The office had no library and no computers, only a very small (and hot) room in which to see clients. Legal issues encountered were many and varied and advice often needed to take account of the nature of the community as well as the client.

Geographic isolation also creates professional isolation for rural practitioners, limiting their ability to network within the legal profession, to develop effective working relationships with members of the Bar, to access legal academics and to keep up with their professional training needs. The impact becomes more severe as the geographic position becomes more isolated.

Issues facing rural community legal centres

Given the recent support provided by the federal government for the development of CLCs in rural areas, attention should be paid to issues facing such centres. These CLCs tend to have been developed to service large geographic areas, which may create challenges for developing a sense of community ownership of such services. Elsje van Moorst, Manager of Geelong Community Legal Service, has identified the following difficulties facing rural CLCs:

• difficulties in recruiting and retaining experienced staff;

• a smaller ‘pool’ of volunteers to draw from;

• less access to services provided in metropolitan areas. For example, specialist CLCs, major law firms involved in pro bono initiatives;

• resource allocations which do not take adequate account of the additional costs of running outreach services; and

• the mismatch of expecting CLCs with regional responsibilities to service their region with ‘local’ level funding.[47]

Use of information technology

Rural practitioners need certain skills beyond those required of metropolitan practitioners. In particular, they require local knowledge and sensitivity to the particular needs and concerns of clients in their community in order to practise effectively. The smaller size of rural firms tends to require practitioners to become more self-reliant. Increasingly, rural lawyers must develop their information technology skills to gain access to legal information services, as well as staying up-to-date across wide areas of practice.

While many metropolitan practitioners face the same issues, they do so for different reasons. The distinct experience in rural legal practices is significant, particularly as developments in legal service delivery by means of telecommunications may bring metropolitan practitioners in contact with rural clients in greater numbers. For new forms of legal service delivery to be successful and accessible, awareness of the specific needs of both rural clients and practitioners is necessary.

The use of information technology as a means of providing legal services is slowly building momentum. At this stage, such use has tended to be limited to government and not-for-profit services being delivered to rural communities from a metropolitan base.[48] The Internet, email, video and audio-conferencing are slowly starting to challenge the traditional way that lawyers have delivered legal services. Acknowledging the work that has been done in the area by health and education professionals, lawyers are beginning to see non face-to-face services as an option.

The challenges that the use of technology has engendered are often common to both lawyers and their clients. For clients, such technology is often unfamiliar and the delivery of non-face to face services may be seen as threatening and unsupportive. Use of computers and the Internet is often not a way of life for rural clients and training, cost and ongoing support may be an issue. For lawyers, looking outside of their own communities for legal work may be unfamiliar, and the clients wary of the technology. For city practitioners, such forays into rural communities may raise legal issues they are not familiar with or are incapable of recognising. This has the potential to operate to the distinct disadvantage of clients.

Client confidentiality in the delivery of non-face to face services is also extremely important. In rural communities, clients may not be believe that the confidentiality of such services can be maintained. Locating the service at a venue which clients could be attending for one of a number of reasons may best preserve legal confidentiality. Examples of such locations where technology is used to deliver various services are community centres and health centres.

Co-ordination of rural services

Given the range of experiences and varied needs of rural clients, communities and legal practitioners, it is essential that new initiatives in rural areas be properly coordinated and evaluated. In the past three years the Queensland experience has been that a number of services have been established to contribute to servicing the legal needs of rural communities but with limited overarching coordination or integration to ensure such needs are in fact met. It is imperative that new programs firstly acknowledge other work being undertaken in a community and then target unmet legal needs. The importance of consultation with local service providers and potential clients cannot be underestimated. It is such groups that will hopefully become the supporters of new initiatives and the driving force for acceptance within communities.

Initiatives also need to be developed on a sustainable basis with recurrent money and resources. Without continuity of service, the ongoing needs of communities are unlikely to be understood by service providers and will therefore be more difficult to meet. For non-face to face forms of legal advice and assistance to succeed, local community service providers will be crucial supporters. Such support will not be maintained if service arrangements change without good reason and explanation. Rural initiatives need time for trust to develop so they can become part of the local landscape.


This article has highlighted a range of matters that impact on the ability of rural communities to access appropriate legal services. There is clearly a need for further and ongoing research in this area. We are likely to see increasing political pressure to address rural legal service issues. While the establishment of increasing numbers of regional CLCs is an important development, this of itself will never be enough. It will be important to promote a mixed system of service delivery with private practitioners, legal aid agencies and CLCs working together in a coordinated manner.

The development and acceptance of new technologies will result in continuing changes in forms of legal service delivery. Rural communities are likely to be encouraged to make use of services delivered other than in the traditional individualised face-to-face manner. There is also likely to be increasing use of paralegal professionals, particularly within community-based strategies to promote access to legal services

Lawyers delivering services to rural clients need to be educated about the diversity of legal needs within their communities. This will be important to improving the quality of legal service provision to rural areas. This is particularly so where technology and city-based services form the basis for the service delivery. Further, the importance of community- based connections to the rural client suggests that any service delivery strategies must involve local knowledge and local people.


[*] Jeff Giddings teaches law at Griffith University.Barbara Hook teaches law at Griffith University. Jennifer Nielsen teaches law at Southern Cross University.Thanks to Judy Harrison for her comments on earlier drafts of this article.© 2001 Jeff Giddings, Barbara Hook and Jennifer Nielsen (text)© 2001 Stuart Roth (cartoon)

[1] See Margot Rawsthorne’s article in this issue.

[2] In 1994–1995, Jennifer completed a consultancy on gender bias in the civil litigation system in the region for the NSW Ministry for the Status and Advancement for Women (1994–1995).

[3] Keogh, L. and Nielsen, J., A Model Assessment Practice for CLE in RRR Areas, Southern Cross University, Lismore, 2001.

[4] The program is a partnership between Griffith University Law School and Caxton Legal Centre. The program, funded by the Federal Attorney-General’s Department, is delivered using the facilities of Learning Network Queensland.

[5] See Nic Economou’s article in this issue. Collits, P., ‘Small Town Decline and Survival: Trends, Success Factors and Policy Issues’, paper presented to the ‘Future of Australia’s Country Towns’ Conference at La Trobe University, Bendigo, June 2000; Jeffreys, H. and Munn, P., ‘Tumby Bay — Through Crisis to Coping: An Integrated Community Development Approach for Managing Change’ (1996) 6 (1) Rural Society 3.

[6] Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, ‘The Justice Statement’, Canberra, 1995, p.11.

[7] Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, ref. 6, above, p.79.

[8] Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, ref. 6, above, p.79.

[9] Giddings, J., ‘Worth the Wait for Justice Reform?’ (1996) April Legal Action, 8.

[10] The national representative body for the State and Territory-based legal aid commissions.

[11] National Legal Aid, ‘Meeting Tomorrow’s Needs on Yesterday’s Budget: the Undercapacity of Legal Aid in Australia’, 1994.

[12] View expressed by Mary Anne Noone to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee, Inquiry into the Australian Legal Aid System: Second Report, June 1997, p.20.

[13] Dewar, J., Giddings, J. and Parker, S., ‘The Impact of Legal Aid Changes on Family Law Practice’, (1999) 13 Australian Journal of Family Law 33; Giddings, J., Dewar, J. and Parker, S., ‘Being Expected To Do More With Less: Criminal Law Legal Aid in Queensland’, (1999) 23 Criminal Law Journal 69.

[14] Williams, D., 9 May 2000, ‘Legal Aid Funding Boost’, accessed at <> . For an example of the politicised nature of the legal aid issue in Australia, see Williams, D., 11 May 2000, ‘Labor and Democrats Mislead on Legal Aid’, accessed at < agnews/1998newsag/508_98.htm> .

[15] Williams, D., 17 December 1998, ‘Making Community Legal Services More Accessible to South Australians’, accessed at < aghome/agnews/1998newsag/508_98.htm> .

[16] Kimberley and South West regions of Western Australia, the Iron Triangle region of South Australia, the Centre-West region of Queensland, the New South Wales South Coast and the cross-border region of New South Wales and Victoria centred in Albury-Wodonga.

[17] Williams, D., 11 May 1999, ‘National Family Law Telecommunication Advice and Information Service’, accessed at < aghome/agnews/1999newsag/telephone_99.htm> .

[18] Far West of New South Wales, Gippsland in Victoria, the Goldfields region of Western Australia and the South East and Riverland regions of South Australia. See Williams, D., 7 February 2000, ‘Community Legal Services Boosted in Regional and Rural Australia’, accessed at <> .

[19] See the Committee’s website at < lawreform/Legal_Services_Inquiry/default.htm> .

[20] Hunter, R., Family Law Case Profiles, Justice Research Centre, 1999, p.xiv.

[21] See the Report of the Community Well-being and Lifestyle Working Group of the Regional Australia Summit, October 1999, especially Key Priority 2, accessed at < summit/outcomes/reports/theme4_report.htm> .

[22] See for example NSW Ministry for the Status and Advancement of Women, Dubay Jahli: Aboriginal Women and the Law Report, NSW MSAW, Sydney, 1994; Women’s Legal Resources Centre, Women Out West, WLRC, Sydney, 1992.

[23] ‘Man arrested over Casino incident’, Northern Star, Friday, 6 April 2001, p.2.

[24] Domestic Violence in Regional Australia — A Literature Review, June 2000. Accessed at < htm> .

[25] See Nielsen, J., Gender Bias in the Civil Litigation System and its impact on Women as Civil Litigants in NSW: Northern Rivers Region, Southern Cross University, Lismore, 1995.

[26] See Australian Law Reform Commission, Equality Before the Law: Justice for Women, Report No 69, Part II, AGPS, 1994, ch 11.

[27] See Angela Pollard’s discussion in this issue, in Briefs, ‘Activism in local communities’.

[28] See the Report of the Community Well-being and Lifestyle Working Group of the Regional Australia Summit, October 1999, especially Key Priority 1, accessed at < summit/outcomes/reports/theme4_report.htm> .

[29] See Dewar and others and Giddings and others, ref 13, above.

[30] Nielsen, ref 25, above, p.39.

[31] ALRC, Managing Justice: A review of the federal civil justice system, Report No 89, 2000, < publications/reports/89/> , Chapter 5, paras [5.76]–[5.80].

[32] Nielsen, ref 25, above, p.38.

[33] Schetzer, Louis, National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, Submission to the Victorian Law Reform Committee, Inquiry into Legal Services in Regional and Rural Victoria, 13 June 2000, < default.htm> , 19 June 2001.

[34] Camilleri, Margaret, Central Highlands Community Legal Centre, Submission to the Victorian Law Reform Committee, 27 April 2000, < default.htm> 19 June 2001.

[35] See the article by Merran Lawler in this issue.

[36] See the article by Cathy Pereira in this issue.

[37] Nielsen, ref 25, above, p.32.

[38] Chestnutt, B., ‘A Country Practice’, (1999) 26(4) Brief, 5.

[39] Faine, J., Lawyers in the Alice: Aboriginals and Whitefellas’ Law, Federation Press, 1993.

[40] Blacksell, M., Econimides, K. and Watkins, C., Justice Outside the City: Access to Legal Services in Rural Britain, Longman Scientific and Technical, 1991, p.4.

[41] Hardy, S., ‘Online Mediation: Internet Dispute Resolution’, (1998) 9(3) Australian Dispute Resolution Journal 216.

[42] Lauw, I., ‘Specialisation, Accreditation and the Legal Profession in Australia and Canada’, (1994) 1(2) E Law 1-27, Horan, J., ‘Increased Risk for Specialist Legal Practitioners’ (1999) 73(1) Law Institute Journal 55.

[43] Macdonald, I., ‘Country Lawyers and Their Problems’, (1979) 53 Australian Law Journal 385.

[44] Macdonald, ref 43, above, p.404.

[45] Lamb D. in Legal Ethics and Legal Practice: Contemporary Issues, Parker and Sampford (eds) 1995, p.225.

[46] Hunter, R., ref 20, above, p.71.

[47] Moorst, E. van, Access Issues for Rural/Regional Victoria, April 2000, 3.

[48] The Women’s Justice Network is a service operated by Legal Aid Queensland providing legal services to 17 towns in South West Queensland using computer video conferencing. See <> . The Western Queensland Justice Network (WQJN) is a Community Legal Service operated by Legal Aid Queensland connecting Rural and Indigenous Communities to legal information and advice through video conferencing technology. WQJN has video conferencing facilities in nine community organisations throughout Central West Queensland. See For the past two years, federal government support has enabled Griffith University Law School and Caxton Legal Centre to work with Learning Network Queensland to deliver a Family Law Advice Service to Hervey Bay and Tara using audio-graphics conferencing. See Giddings, J. and Hook, B., ‘A Little TLC for the Bush’, paper delivered at the International Open Learning Conference, Brisbane, 5 December 2000.

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