The Founding of IMCL
Inner Melbourne Community Legal, formerly the North Melbourne Legal Service, has been providing free legal advice and assistance to our local community since 1978. We have been unwavering in that commitment ever since.
Like other early community legal centres, IMCL started out as a group of lawyers who were passionate about assisting locals who were unable to access the justice system and were profoundly affected by legal problems, such as homelessness, tenancy, social security, and family violence.
Justice Almond reflects on the gap in legal services for the North Melbourne area at the time, having seen the success of the Fitzroy Legal Service where he had volunteered as an undergraduate.
“We had the idea to take the legal service to the community, rather than the community to the legal service,” he explains, acknowledging the importance of making the service as easily accessible as possible.
“Community legal centres are as close as you can possibly get to open access to legal services. There are always barriers to entry to getting professional assistance, but CLCs provide a very low barrier.
“Also, a CLC is within the community, serves the community, and is run by the community, meaning that it is intrinsically beneficial to the community. It’s the least intimidating way for many people to access legal services.”
Peter Collinson recalls the 1970s as a period of idealism that inspired initiatives like the provision of free legal services.
“It was an era where there was a sense of social justice amongst younger lawyers coming out of the universities.”
Setting up the legal service in North Melbourne was no easy feat, but a lack of experience and resources was no impediment to their vision.
“For us it was a step into the dark,” says William Houghton QC.
“It was a sense of altruism, of doing something useful and something different from what we were doing during the day.”
The beginning of IMCL was humble. As pioneers of the area’s first community legal service, the Founders had to persuade both the government and the local community that the provision of such a service was both important and legitimate. They faced obstacles in the beginning, and had to get the word out to the community to encourage clients to attend.
“Initially we prevailed upon the Minister of the Uniting Church in Brougham St, North Melbourne to let us use the church hall on a Thursday night. We had a 6–9 pm slot and we basically started from scratch – we had no premises, no staff and literally no money,” explains Justice Almond.
“I suppose that's the advantage of being young and not seeing problems – we just saw an opportunity.”
The Founders made use of the support of the close-knit community, such as the local electrician who manufactured a fluorescent sign that they plugged into the church wall, dragging the cord down the driveway and perching the sign on the fence, to let the community know they were open for business.
“When we were ready to start our evenings work on a Thursday, we would turn the switch on, sit at our table and wait. In that way we did get some passing clientele. We also dropped some leaflets around the local area, and in the public housing in Flemington and North Melbourne, which generated some people as well,” says Justice Almond.
The service initially operated one night per week, and opened more frequently as demand picked up.
“We were open 2-3 evenings a week, and staffed solely by volunteers” recalls Mr Houghton.
A turning point for the service was securing a shop premises in Melrose Street as a permanent space, owned by the Housing Commission, and securing some funding to employ a full-time solicitor to staff the office during the day.
“That was a huge success, because it confirmed our existence as an operating service,” explains Justice Almond.
Our Founders look back at their time with fondness and pride.
“I feel quite proud that we actually started something like that, where we didn’t have anything at all, but we had a starting base and we had to just work it out as we went,” recalls Mr Collinson.
"To have heard that it's now matured into something that employees as I hear it 12 or so lawyers during the day is quite thrilling, really" he recounts with a wide smile.
Justice Almond feels a similar affection.
“I feel very positive about being associated with NMLS, and I am absolutely delighted that it is continuing in its developed form,” says Justice Almond.
“I am privileged to be associated with the history, with the other Founders, and I'm very proud of everybody who's taken it on and become involved to ensure its continuity.”
Image: William Houghton QC (left), Justice Peter Almond (middle), Peter Collinson QC (right), North Melbourne Legal Service 25th Anniversary, 2004