Former board member 1994 - 2001.
Cath Bowtell reflects on her time as a board member of North Melbourne Legal Service from 1994 – 2001, which she credits with rounding out her perspective on social justice and exposing her to the implications of inequality at a grass roots level.
Cath was inspired to become a board member at North Melbourne Legal Service after a friend suggested the role to her, resulting in a formative community law experience.
“I was working in the labour movement and was used to dealing with people that were informed of their rights,” Cath explains.
“Bridging that social policy and egalitarian agenda, and just realising the extraordinary privilege that being in the labour market affords people, proved a good balancer for me.
“For all of the problems that working people have, they are still extraordinarily privileged compared to people that are locked out of work. Being involved with the legal service certainly helped anchor and change my thinking around social justice.”
Cath also reflects fondly on her board tenure because it was during this time that she had her children, and formed some lasting friendships with her colleagues at NMLS.
“I had time away from work when I was looking after my eldest, and I would go and spend time during the day at NMLS – the support of that small office was a terrific connection to community for me, as I suddenly found myself an isolated stay-at-home mother for a short period of time."
Resilience in the face of government pressure
“I was there during the Kennett years, it was a really difficult time for the community legal sector, and for community organisations more generally,” recalls Cath.
“We were being pushed by the State Government to consider mergers, and there was a real view that we were all sub-scale.”
The board focused on retaining a local focus and maintaining the resilience of the community sector at the time.
“I think the resilience had built up through the 1980s and there was a real sense of partnership with the community that wasn’t just in the legal sector.”
The pressure on the community legal sector in the 90s was not just about funding, explains Cath, but also pressure about purpose, with an emphasis on being more a delivery of legal services and less about law reform.
“Resisting that was an important part of, and continues to be an important part of, what legal sectors do.”
Growing to support community need
During her time on the board, Cath oversaw a progression from NMLS solely focusing on policing issues and prisons, to supporting the establishment of the Youth Law program and women’s outreach programs. The board was determined to reach members of the community that were missing out on resources, particularly young homeless people in the city and women living in public housing who needed to see a lawyer during the day when their partner or children were not around.
“Sometimes no one would turn up to those outreaches, then sometimes they would be booked out, so there was some managing pressure around efficient use of grant money and trying to serve the community in a way that would be meaningful for them,” recalls Cath.
“I think that was probably a pre-cursor to the service that now runs out of the Royal Women’s.”
“Opening up those opportunities and being prepared to be slightly less efficient to serve a need is something you struggle with as a director or a board member.”
The holistic IMCL approach
“IMCL is a legal service that values a whole person approach, and is non-judgmental,” explains Cath.
“For example, the youth outreach program has a multi-disciplinary team that supports people who have complex needs, which are often a very small part of a broader issue that needs to be addressed, like housing or health.”
“The ability to be a gateway service and to refer clients on to other agencies is a really phenomenal model of service.”
Cath emphasises the relevance of the community legal service and its model now more than ever.
“There is feedback from your casework which informs your education work, informs your policy work and your reform work, and having that feedback loop is a really important model.”
“IMCL has stayed true to that throughout its history, and not become ‘get the clients through the door’ is really important, despite a lot of political pressure from all Governments, which is really important.”