Julia Steward’s legal clients are queuing out the door well before she arrives at the office. It’s not really the kind of office you’d expect. Babies are crying, children are running around, and families are gathering to eat and talk.
This is what legal aid services have become for the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (Racs). The community legal centre has been running on a shoestring since the refugee legal assistance sector lost most government funding in March 2014.
The odds are stacked against it after it lost 85% of its funding. A team of 14 lawyers gets in touch with about 350 clients a week. Recent changes to asylum seeker processing laws mean asylum seekers are likely to get just one shot at their claims. But the small team of staff and volunteers is taking on the task of meeting the needs of thousands of asylum seekers across New South Wales. It is trying to do more with less, finding inventive ways to make up the funding shortfall, and in the process is rewriting the book on how legal aid is delivered.
“There’s a massive number of people who just have no information, because they’ve never been provided with a lawyer and they just have no understanding of what their legal situation is,” Steward, a solicitor at Racs, says during a short break at the outreach centre in Parramatta.
“Outreach was initially set up to help provide these people with information, but also to put lawyers in communities where people can actually access them.”
The outreach program runs once a week at Parramatta on Friday morning out of a little cottage owned by the Jesuit refugee service. Another outreach clinic is available in Auburn. At each, Racs has seen up to 50 asylum seekers coming through the doors on a single day.
At first glance it’s chaotic. Asylum seekers from Iran, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are lining up to see Steward. A small team of volunteers, including law students undertaking practical training, help her triage the clients each week.
It’s not a sterile, corporate office though. It’s a place for people to talk and catch up. Sandwiches and biscuits are shared. It’s a new kind of legal aid that goes beyond the kind of services lawyers ordinarily provide.
“What we found, particularly here in Parramatta, is that we have large numbers of clients coming who just want general information,” says Steward.
She says the funding situation has changed the game for Racs, but has also made it more responsive – if it sees a gap in services it tries to fill it. If it needs to rework something, it does.
“It’s very rare as a lawyer that you can go, ‘You know what? I’m really passionate about this,’ and to have your boss go, ‘OK, how do we make that work? Because there’s a need there, let’s do it.’ That’s so rare,” she says.
Racs now runs specific programs to help unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable clients, and has helped clients who were subject to enhanced screening. But the funding gaps make it harder to cover the field. Occasionally it has to turn asylum seekers down.
“Racs is emphasising taking on vulnerable clients, and we do have to make tough choices about which new clients they take on,” says Steward.
Many of the asylum seeker clients at the outreach clinic have been in Australia for years, but have yet to see a lawyer. Most of their claims have been in limbo since 2012.
When the Coalition came to power in 2013 it sought to introduce a new style of processing called “fast-track” assessment. It is largely a one-hit system that heavily restricts merit reviews to tribunals. Once a decision is made, that’s it. Judicial review can be possible, but is expensive and not always be viable. The visa possibilities are limited: three-year temporary protection visas and five-year safe haven enterprise visas are the only options available.
This new regime has come under heavy criticism from the legal community, which has argued Australia is risking sending genuine refugees back to danger.
Racs is preparing for fast-track processing to begin. The federal government has suggested it is close but it still has not announced when it will begin. And there is no indication what order it will begin processing from. The organisation takes phone-in calls and has a walk-in centre to help asylum seekers complete their statements to prepare for this.
Steward said it is a critical time for these asylum seekers to understand what the process will be. She and her team in Parramatta hold weekly information sessions that run through what the process will be, which Guardian Australia attended. Racs explains what asylum seekers’ rights are, how to find out about their visa conditions, and what they need to do to prepare once the bar on processing is lifted.
Tanya Jackson-Vaughan, the executive director of Racs since 2011, says the transition from government funding has not been easy.
“When it initially happened we were in a bit of shock, because we didn’t know how on earth we were going to go from fully government-funded to essentially none,” she says.
To help make up some of the shortfall, Jackson-Vaughan hired a fundraiser full-time. Racs has become renowned for its quirky fundraising events. Instead of trivia nights or raffles, it has held speed dating events and hosted gigs.
“We’ve gone from never raising a dollar to actually raising quite a bit of money,” she says. “Nowhere near [enough] to meet our costs, but we’re doing well. And hopefully it will just keep going.”
But is it sustainable? Racs has been successful in making up some of the funding shortfall, but ultimately, saysJackson-Vaughan, government funding is important.
“Funded services are important because it is a matter of life and death with protection claims,” she says. “Particularly now that there is really no right to review, you’ve got one chance of putting your claims properly. Without legal assistance or migration advice everyone would struggle. Even if you’re highly intelligent and fluent in English it would be a challenge.
“Asylum seekers aren’t residents, but they might be future residents. We need to treat people decently.”