From Humble Beginnings
Women’s Legal Service (WLS) was formed in 1984 after a meeting of committed women, from a mix of welfare, counselling and legal backgrounds identified a need for a free service that would respond to legal issues affecting women in Queensland. Women’s experience of the legal system was often distinctly different to that of men with women more likely to be primary carers of children, to be financially dependent on male partners and have lower economic status, and they are more likely to have experienced domestic and sexual violence.
WLS began as a volunteer service offering telephone legal advice and counselling, and support from a room on the verandah at Women’s House Shelter at West End. Even at this formative stage of the Service's development, there was a strong emphasis on a holistic approach to responding to women’s legal issues – with lawyers and support workers operating as a team. A cooperative model of both social work and legal practice remains in our current service delivery.
Demand for the Service grew and in 1986, Women’s Legal Service received funding to employ a part-time coordinator. In 1989, the Service received enough State government money to employ its first full-time day time solicitor and coordinator, Ms Zoe Rathus. The organisation has continued to grow, remaining an important voice for state and national law reform.
WLS would not be where it is today without the contribution of the many staff, management committee members, volunteers and supporters. Today, Women’s Legal Service employs over 40 staff (both full and part-time), corporate supporters, over 100 volunteers (comprising female lawyers, law students and social workers), who are a core part of our service delivery and who graciously give of their time and expertise each month to help vulnerable women affected by domestic violence.
Accessibility for vulnerable clients to the legal system is at our core. Women in prison commonly have multiple forms of disadvantage and have been victims of violence themselves. WLS solicitors in 1987, began their first visits to the women’s prison, a service that continues to this date. This service focuses on the range of family-related issues that are faced by incarcerated women – not the offences which have led to being imprisoned. WLS auspiced the establishment of Sisters Inside. At the time of our establishment, telephone legal advice was regarded as quite radical. Despite this, Women's Legal Service recognised that many women had issues accessing the service for face-to-face appointments for a range of reasons including child care, domestic violence, disability or because they lived in a rural, regional or remote part of the State. The telephone was the only means for many women to access the Service and it remains an integral part of our service delivery today.
Over time it became apparent that the majority of women sought advice about their experiences of domestic violence, family law matters and child protection. In response to this, and to make the most of our finite resources, the Service moved to providing specialist advice in these areas. We also work closely with other community legal centres and private lawyers to ensure appropriate referrals for women who require advice in areas outside our expertise.
WLS was founded on a commitment to legal rights and access to justice education, and collaboration through community legal education and community development projects. The Service continues to deliver vital legal resources to empower service providers and survivors through information. WLS has also been integrally involved in many community development projects. For example, in 1993 the service developed the Process for Protection that established the need for women experiencing domestic violence to have specialist support when applying for domestic violence protection orders.
Law reform has proven an effective primary prevention tool for WLS. In 1985, the developing Service became involved in the case of Beryl Birch and a public campaign about the inadequacy of the self-defence laws in Queensland for women who killed a violent partner in the face of life threatening violence. This campaign continued on throughout the 1990s with WLS involved in advocacy around other high profile cases such as R v Stevenson and R v Kina.
Our Annerley office offers a safe space for the women we help. In 1996, the Service purchased its current property, a Queenslander on Ipswich Road, Annerley. The building has a history of women helping women having previously homed a hospice for war widows operated by a dedicated mother and daughter. The building has been a welcoming environment for women and a stable base for the organisation even in uncertain times.
We acknowledge the resilience and agency of our clients. Their experiences and stories inform our work, and continue to inspire us to pursue our mission to advocate to achieve justice for women.
Many years on from its humble beginnings on the verandah of Women’s House, Women's Legal Service continues to advocate for the rights, safety and justice of Queensland women, providing legal assistance to those who have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault or other forms of violence against women.