After years of abuse at the hands of her ex-partner, Sarah* had not been able to work for three years due to anxiety, PTSD and depression. Struggling to survive on JobSeeker, Sarah was behind on her mortgage, council rates, and utilities.
Sarah knew she needed help and contacted Mortgage Stress Victoria, a service run by WEstjustice, a legal centre in Melbourne’s west. The MSV team comprises lawyers, financial counsellors and social workers who support people experiencing mortgage stress.
With the MSV team by her side, Sarah negotiated payment plans for her debts and signed up to a TAFE course to retrain as a disability support worker. Under pressure from her bank and uncertain of her job prospects, Sarah made the heartbreaking decision to sell her house.
In the meantime, Sarah discovered that she loved her new job and was able to earn a good income. Despite this, the bank remained intransigent.
But Sarah’s lender had not counted on the determination of the MSV team, including senior financial counsellor Linda Burnett, who demonstrated that Sarah could afford her mortgage payments, could start repaying her debts and get her life back on track. Finally, the bank acquiesced.
Twelve months on from hitting the depths of despair, Sarah has learnt new skills, loves her job, and is overjoyed to still have her home.
‘It is so rewarding when we can help people experiencing mortgage stress find sustainable solutions. So many benefits flow when people have secure housing,’ says Linda.
While MSV began as a pilot project in 2016, its success attracted state government funding and support is now available for people throughout Victoria. Sarah is just one of hundreds of people who have been able to keep their homes with the help of MSV.
Another innovative WEstjustice program is the School Lawyer program, which rolled out in 2015 and is now in four schools. A lawyer, embedded in the school’s wellbeing team, provides free, confidential, and easy to understand advice to students. Areas of the law that young people particularly need help with include family violence, victims of crime compensation, homelessness, public transport fines, employment law, and minor criminal issues.
Youth Law program manager Vincent Shin said that students often have no idea of their rights or where to go for support. ‘With many people in Melbourne’s west from multicultural backgrounds, there is often a lack of trust in, and fear of, authority because of what they have been exposed to in their home countries,’ he says.
‘The students also aren’t aware of lawyer/client privilege, so when we explain that everything they say remains confidential, it really helps them to be more open. And we know that the earlier people seek help, the easier it is to resolve legal issues.’
Residents in Melbourne’s west have had access to free legal advice in a range of areas for more than 40 years after lawyer Denis Nelthorpe established the Consumer Credit Legal Service in 1982. Denis was a powerful advocate for people who were on low incomes and experiencing disadvantage.
In the four decades since, there have been various iterations of community legal centres. WEstjustice was formed following the amalgamation of Wyndham Legal Service, Footscray Community Legal Centre, and Western Suburbs Legal Service.
The legal support and advocacy offered has also changed in line with the west’s cultural diversity. The area has some of the country’s highest rates of newly arrived people speaking languages other than English; of casualised, low-paid workers; and of people facing socio-economic disadvantage. A perfect storm for exploitation.
In recognition of this, WEstjustice in 2014 launched another unique offering – the Migrant and Refugee Workers’ Legal Service. ‘In our case work, it was becoming clear just how much exploitation was going on, including wage theft; sham contracting; paying for non-existent training; and much more,’ says Jennifer Jones, Legal Director of the Employment and Equality Law Program.
‘We also realised that to reach as many people as possible, it was important to involve and educate multicultural leaders and workers to spread the word about workers’ rights, and to make sure people knew how to fight for their rights.’ This Train the Trainer program won a Hesta Community Sector Award for Outstanding Organisation in 2017.
Unfortunately, with the onset of COVID-19 preventing face-to-face service delivery, and difficulty in obtaining ongoing funding from the state government, WEstjustice had to put the service on hold. The program had assisted more than 200 people and recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid entitlements and financial compensation for unlawful sackings.
Demand remains high. A Grattan Institute report published in May found that one in six migrants were paid less than the national minimum wage. And while this is terrible for migrants, the issue affects all workers. As Grattan Institute economist Brendan Coates noted: ‘It makes it harder for Australians to bargain for a pay rise … and it punishes businesses that try to do the right thing.’
One solution he advised was ‘boosting the resources of community legal centres, so they can support migrant workers and Australian workers.’ Precisely the sort of program run by WEstjustice.
As well as directly providing legal advice, WEstjustice advocates on policy issues. Earlier this year, staff celebrated a huge victory when the Albanese government announced a change to citizenship laws for New Zealanders. More than 20 years ago, the Howard government barred people holding New Zealand citizenship from obtaining Australian citizenship.
Joe Nunweek, Legal Director of the Economic Justice Program, led the fight to change this discriminatory policy. ‘What people didn’t realise is that many children were locked out of higher education – university or TAFE courses – because they weren’t eligible for HELP loans. This led to many children disengaging in high school because they thought “what is the point” if they are only ever going to be able to get low-skilled jobs.’
‘Career pathways were also closed off for highly skilled people because they were generally barred from working Commonwealth jobs,’ said Joe.
Then there were the personal costs: ‘We saw the despair of so many families; a whole generation of people who felt like second-class citizens, who felt they didn’t belong or have a stake in society.’
In recognition of WEstJustice’s advocacy, key staff were invited to a briefing with the Minister for Home Affairs, Clare O’Neil, before the change was announced publicly.
*Not her real name
If you are experiencing mortgage stress,
please contact MSV on 1800 572 292.
To contact WEstjustice:
email@example.com; 9749 7720