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At the end of 2021, we are sharing just a few of the stories from the pro bono work we do every day at Clayton Utz. We can't tell every story of how we have helped to change lives. The 12 tiles below represent a tiny fraction of our 1,319 pro bono files this year. None of these clients was eligible for Legal Aid's assistance. Without pro bono representation, they would have been on their own.
COVID-19 continues to upend lives, and as a consequence, 2021 was our busiest year ever in pro bono. Clayton Utz lawyers provided over 56,000 hours of pro bono work this year, with 90% of our lawyers and partners involved.
Clayton Utz is proud to have one of the strongest pro bono practices around, and proud that acting on a pro bono basis for low-income and vulnerable people is a real part of who we are as a firm.
We are all living through the strangest of times. As pro bono lawyers, one immediate consequence of
the pandemic has been the need to get on top of new laws which suddenly affect the way that our
clients live and work.
Clayton Utz acted in the Victorian Court of Appeal in September, to clarify the operation of the
Emergency Measure transitional regulations on tenants who were unable to pay their rent during the
rental moratorium. That appeal probably prevented hundreds or more
Victorian tenants from being thrown out by their landlord in August, September and
October on the basis of unpaid rent. Many would have been like our client in the case, who, when the
pandemic hit, suddenly lost almost all of her income as a ride-share driver, and had only been able
to afford to pay about half of her rent.
We have also lost count of the number of charity clients and community legal centres we have advised
in recent months about the changing public health orders relating to
vaccine mandates. Our charity clients are employers too, and face the same challenges in
understanding and applying the new rules for work and safety as our many commercial clients.
Two very different matters, from the 150 of our pro bono files this year for First Nations' clients,
speak powerfully to the importance of country.
We are assisting the Ngurrara native title holders to establish a charity that will protect and promote the cultural significance of the Ngurrara Canvas
II. The Canvas was created by 40 artists for a 1996 native title claim, to map their
country and communicate clearly with an English-speaking court system the Ngurrara people's
connection with their country.
It is a massive artwork - 80 square metres. Reproduction of the Canvas has been
common, and our work enables funds raised from the reproduction or display of the Canvas to be used
to preserve it and to remunerate the artists.
We went to the Supreme Court, so that our client could obtain orders to have the Coroner release the
body of his grandmother to him, as her executor. The Court's orders allowed the client finally,
after many weeks of dispute and delay, to arrange his grandmother's funeral
on her country, in a remote town, in accordance with what she had asked in her will.
The legal system can make it difficult for trans youth to access the medical treatment required to
align with their gender identity, even when they are supported by their family and doctors.
This year we acted so that Andrew (not his real name) could commence "Stage two" hormone treatment. A
public hospital refused to administer the stage two treatment to Andrew for his gender dysphoria,
even in circumstances where: he had been assessed by two psychiatrists as competent to consent to
the treatment, those two doctors were of the opinion that the treatment was in Andrew's best
interests, and his mother supported and consented to the treatment. Andrew's father would not give
his consent, and the hospital said that it believed it could not act in those circumstances, without
a Family Court order.
Andrew's mother told us that: "Your kindness and unending hard work and compassion has been a
wonderful support to our family. I know Andrew is eternally grateful to
you as much as I am."
It can seem impossible to comprehend sometimes, but we have acted since 2009 for dozens of people
held in Australia in slavery and forced labour.
This year, our work included negotiating the payment of $120,000 towards
unpaid wages, from a couple who had kept our client as a slave in their suburban home.
We also acted in a landmark decision of the Federal Court, where
for the first time an Australian court has held that when a foreign diplomat enters a contract to
keep a foreign domestic servant at their official residence, the employment contract does not have
the protection of diplomatic immunity after the diplomat has left Australia. This decision opens the
way for us to pursue cases for unpaid wages for three clients from India and Pakistan who were held
in slavery at the homes of three former High Commissioners in Canberra. One of those cases is
profiled in this Four Corners episode.
Sometimes our work might not impact anyone's life beyond our client. At other times, when we do law
reform work in conjunction with our community partners, we can impact the way that the law affects
the lives of many vulnerable people.
In 2021 we have provided key pieces of legal research for policy submissions on behalf of Justice Connect, one of our favourite and most effective organisations
working to help to close the ‘justice gap’ in Australia.
Our research into the legal and non-legal needs of prisoners and people post-release, including the
links between homelessness and imprisonment, and examples of integrated legal and non-legal support
services for prisoners, was crucial to the June report Closing the Revolving Door: Scoping holistic legal needs of Victorians exiting
prison. Housing has never been more important in Australia and Clayton Utz's research will
be integral in supporting Justice Connect in developing a model to help vulnerable people avoid
re-offending and homelessness.
In November we helped Justice Connect to prepare a review of laws and regulations which criminalise
homelessness in Australia, for a Submission to the United Nations Special
Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on
extreme poverty and human rights. Due to their public visibility, people experiencing homelessness
are at a greater risk of being fined or charged for low-level offending related to homelessness and
poverty. Examples of these low level offences include laws which prohibit begging and public
drinking, street sweeping offences and ‘move-on’ directions. These offences criminalise
otherwise lawful activity, such as sleeping, drinking or hanging about, on the basis that it is done
in a public place.
Our pro bono work has now secured over $10.4 million in compensation
for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, including over $6
million in New South Wales and $3 million in Western
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, violence against women, particularly domestic violence, has
intensified. This year we were referred 100 clients seeking
statutory compensation for violence. Below are just a few examples of our work this year in
statutory compensation schemes around Australia. All names have been changed.
Cate endured years of coercive control and intimate partner violence. Most of the violence happened
at home in Western Australia, but Cate was also assaulted on holiday in Victoria. Cate also lost her
job as a result of the violence. The Offender was convicted of over 65 offences including assaults,
being armed in a way that may cause fear, unlawful damage and breach of violence restraining orders.
We helped Cate to receive $100,000 for her injuries and $50,000 in lost income from the violence in Western Australia, and
are helping her apply for compensation in Victoria. Cate has returned to part-time work, and when
she learned of the compensation decision, she told us she could not believe it: "Thank you once
again, I'm still in shock but in a really good way".
Kim was subjected to regular verbal, physical and sexual abuse over a 4 year period, which
culminated in an incident where she ended up in hospital with a ruptured spleen. The Offender was
convicted of aggravated assault, endangering the life, health and safety of a person and unlawfully
doing grievous bodily harm, and was sentenced to 8 years. Kim obtained a lifetime violence
restraining order from the Offender for her protection. Kim also disclosed domestic violence she
experienced in her marriage many years earlier. We helped Kim to receive a total of $191,000 for her injuries.
Megan is a survivor both of child sexual abuse perpetrated by her father and brother, and physical
and sexual violence perpetrated by her ex-partner. We helped Megan to receive a total of $45,000, and we continue to help Megan to apply for further
Jackie was returning to Australia, and was physically assaulted by her partner in hotel quarantine.
We helped Jackie to receive a total of $6,500.
Every year we act for far too many vulnerable workers who have been exploited, underpaid and harassed
by their dodgy employers. Here are some of their stories. All names have been changed.
Ha-Joon was employed under a sham contract arrangement. Her employer told her she was an independent
contractor, when she was really an employee. For two years, she was underpaid and received no annual
leave or superannuation. We helped Ha-Joon commence Federal Circuit Proceedings, and negotiated a
settlement for $45,000. Ha-Joon told us that: "It could have been a
total nightmare to go through all these "Legal" things but you guys made sure I did not feel
intimidated about what I was going through. I may be one client amongst many other clients you have
helped, but please do not forget what you are doing can change somebody's life. With your help, I
feel vindicated knowing that I was never at fault."
This year we have helped employees who have been sexually harassed at work
to recover over $210,000 in compensation, including a
15-year-old employee of a fast food franchise, an event coordinator at a family-run restaurant, and
the only female employee at a car repair business (who was also on a student visa).
It is a truth universally ignored that wage exploitation can be a key motivation for employing
Shan was employed as a butcher and suffered a workplace injury due to faulty equipment. When his
first worker's compensation payment was significantly lower than his weekly wage, the employer
explained that they had under-reported Shan's wage so as to keep workers compensation premiums down.
When Shan asked this to be fixed, he was fired.
We helped Shan lodge a general protections application at Fair Work and represented him at
conciliation. Shan settled his claim favourably, including general damages and his former employer
agreeing to report his correct rate of pay to the insurance company.
We continue to assist Shan to recover wages from seven former
employers who have all underpaid him.
John was a contracted cleaner who was systematically underpaid for twelve years. He was forced to dip
into his personal superannuation, and seek hardship variations from his bank to pay his mortgage.
When John came to us for advice, he was already out of time to claim
unpaid income from 2006 to 2014. We helped John to still demand over
$100,000 in income and superannuation for the remaining four years. John settled the
dispute favourably, without having to commence court proceedings.
Bruce was a tow truck driver whose employer stole from his wages and failed to pay out his annual
leave when his employment ended. After his employer went into liquidation, we helped Bruce sue the director personally for his knowing contraventions of the Fair
Work Act. Bruce obtained default judgment for $27,000 plus $5,800 in interest.
We have acted for employees with disabilities who were discriminated at work, to help recover over
$65,000 this year. Our clients included a factory worker who had
worked well for 2 years, but was fired when his employer discovered one day that he was deaf in one
ear, and a casual teacher who resigned because of the ongoing comments made by the principal about
her assistance dog.
Unfortunately, when you've been scammed, it is unlikely that you will get your money back. But
sometimes, with the dogged determination of our lawyers, the unlikely happens. All names have been
Tom is 86 years old, lives in a retirement village and is his wife's carer. When his
recently-purchased second hand car ground to a halt, Tom assumed that the engine failure was covered
under warranty. However the manufacturer refused warranty coverage, saying immediately that the
dodgy engine was not a manufacturing defect, but due to a poor service history of the vehicle. In
other words - the car we sold you must have been badly-treated by the previous owner, and it is not
our fault that the engine blew up straightaway. Tom needed his car, and had to borrow funds to pay
for the cost of a second-hand replacement engine.
After we became involved and raised the manufacturer's responsibilities under the Australian
Consumer Law, the car company paid up Tom's engine replacement and towing costs of $11,028. Tom told us that: "it's wonderful that there are companies
who will help the "little man" against large companies, we in our wildish dream never thought this
would happen. Thank you again."
Steve has been homeless on and off since 2009, and suffers from a brain injury. He relies solely on
the disability support pension as his income. In late 2020, he applied to a payday lender for a
short-term loan of $230. Months later he had repaid a total of $210,
and somehow still owed $557.45, including $537.45 in service fees.
We wrote to the lender to demand that they waive the debt, on the basis of their unconscionable
conduct. The lender agreed to end the loan for a final payment of $170 and the remainder of the fees
were waived. John was extremely relieved with this outcome.
Robert, a pensioner, was the victim of a remote access scam in which
his life savings of $900 had been stolen from his bank account. Robert had been saving the money to
service a bond on a rental property and without the money he faced homelessness. With our
assistance, Robert's bank agreed to refund the stolen money on compassionate grounds.
Jasmine is a young, single parent whose sole income is government benefits. In 2019, she leased a
mobile phone, television, iPad and video game from a well-known rental provider. She was paying over
$200 a fortnight, despite her financial hardship. When Jasmine came to us, she had already made
repayments well over what it would have cost her to have bought the products outright.
We helped Jasmine to negotiate an end to the leases, and secured the rental provider's agreement not
to seek any further payments, or require the return of the goods, or make an adverse credit listing
against Jasmine. Without our help, Jasmine still would have had $9,000 of further payments to make
under the leases. What a rort.
Our client has a mild intellectual disability, and lives in regional Queensland. He was talked over
the phone into enrolling in an online education course. The salesperson did not disclose that
graduation would require 480 hours of practical placement. Our client could not possibly have
completed those placement hours, especially during COVID. We negotiated the refund of $4,906 in course fees.
When family and finances don't mix.
Jan gave her daughter $110,000 to purchase a $350,000 property in regional Australia, where Jan and
her daughter would live. Instead of the property being registered (as agreed) in both their names,
title was registered in the daughter's name only. When Jan came to see us, her daughter was taking
steps to sell the home and evict Jan. We helped Jan negotiate a return of
her deposit and a one-year lease, so that she could take
her time to find alternative housing.
Sumi is a survivor of domestic violence. After leaving her violent ex-husband, Sumi started a family
day care and saved a deposit to purchase a house. She continued to have contact with her ex-husband,
because of their children, and he continued to intimidate her. On one occasion, he forced Sumi to
transfer half-ownership of her house to him. He threatened her life and their children's lives if
she did not make the transfer. We helped Sumi to commence court proceedings against her ex-husband
to right this wrong. Not surprisingly, the matter resolved without the need for any appearance in
court - with the ex transferring the half-interest back to Sumi.
Dan has dyslexia and a severe cognitive impairment. Many years ago, Dan's mum won some money,
purchased a very modest house, and gifted it to Dan. Later on, Dan's mum took Dan to see her lawyer,
and presented Dan with mortgage paperwork for a $300,000 line of credit, using Dan's house as
security. The lawyer told Dan to trust his mum, and said that he should sign the paperwork, given
that his mum had gifted him the house in the first place. Dan was not given time to read the
paperwork (or obtain independent legal advice), and felt that he had no option but to sign.
When the relationship between Dan and his mum inevitably broke down, Dan's mum attempted to force a
sale of the property. In the absence of any mortgage default, we informed Dan's mum that the notice
of power of sale was defective, and that Dan would defend any attempted enforcement. We told Dan not
to vacate the property. Since then, Dan's mum has taken no further action.
Dan and his wife told us that the thought of losing their family home had been so distressing, and
with our help, a weight was lifted off their shoulders.
"When you give someone a fish you feed them for a day. If you teach someone to fish you feed them for
Foundation for Indigenous Sustainable Health
(FISH) develops sustainable health through co-designed community based programs that provide
learning experiences in life skills, personal development, and creative initiatives. FISH believes
that sustainable change comes through giving people a hand up. We have worked with FISH since 2017.
One focus is on building the financial sustainability of First Nations people. This year we helped
FISH establish a "Hand Up" Microfinance Fund and loan scheme, as one
of their tools to support economic self-sustainability and break intergenerational cycles of poverty
for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Small, interest-free loans and business support
are provided to help establish micro-enterprises, using simple, easy to understand documents. FISH
also provides an avenue for entrepreneurs to sell their products through its Social Enterprise
We continue to help women whose ex-partners have sued them for money spent by them during the
relationship. These cases are not about money. They are about men
manipulating the legal system to try to continue to exert control over
women, to seek revenge for their partner leaving.
After her wedding in India, our client travelled here with her Australian husband. After she
suffered domestic violence and sexual assault in the marriage, our client obtained a violence
restraining order and relocated interstate to escape. Her ex then sued our client in the Magistrates
Court for $9,000 in alleged debts owed from the marriage. Although parties are not ordinarily
allowed legal representation in these small claims matters, we were given permission to appear,
having regard to our client's cultural background, limited proficiency in English, and the history
of domestic violence. Not long after we became involved to defend the case, the claim was dismissed.
In an even more audacious claim, another client's ex commenced two separate District Court
proceedings against her for over $400,000 for alleged debts
(including blaming her for the loss of a pension for which he had been found to be ineligible). She
had left him, after she discovered that his will listed a number of other women and children as
beneficiaries. The two court cases really seemed to be claims started in anger, without any clear
legal basis. Nevertheless they were enormously stressful for our client and needed to be defended.
We managed to negotiate to have both claims eventually discontinued, without our client needing to
be cross-examined by this angry man.
Working to keep clients in their homes has been a significant part of our pro bono practice for
almost 20 years. 2021 was no different, with our lawyers navigating a complex web of residential
tenancies legislation, pandemic emergency protections and transitional regulations.
This year saw the end of rental eviction moratoriums, but for many clients the financial and
practical hardships of life in and out of lockdown remained. The stakes were high, and we helped
dozens of tenants to avoid, or at least delay, eviction for rental arrears and other reasons.
Here are only a few examples from our housing and homelessness work.
Our client and his partner had both lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic, and months later
were struggling to pay rent. They also had personal safety issues from a violent ex. Then their real
estate agent started steps to evict them, relying on an alleged notice to vacate which our clients
had never seen. The clients were distraught, and literally had nowhere else
to go. Perhaps it was just assumed by the landlord that our clients would have to give up
and move out? That did not happen, once our clients found legal representation. We sifted through a
two year correspondence rental log, to prove that the notice to vacate had never been sent to our
clients and was therefore invalid, knocking out the possession order application in record time.
Twenty years ago our client transferred ownership in her property to her grandson, on the condition
that she would live in her home for the rest of her life. Our client discovered recently that the
Child Support Registrar had lodged a caveat over the property due to unpaid child support payments
by her grandson. This put our client at real risk of being evicted.
We negotiated with the lawyers for the Child Support Registrar, and secured an undertaking that the
property would not be seized or sold for as long as our client resided there.
When our client bought her first home, in a small country town, the building inspection failed to
pick up significant plumbing and guttering issues. Not long after she had moved in, a storm caused
$30,000 of damage. Our client could not afford the rectification costs. We helped her to pursue
claims against the insurer and against the building inspector, and negotiated for them to pay
$15,000 each to get all of the defective work remedied.
Our client lives in a remote community, and rents her home from the Local Aboriginal Land Council.
The house is in a state of disrepair, with little maintenance or repair work undertaken by the LALC
in over 25 years. Despite the client's numerous complaints and requests to the landlord over many
years, nothing got fixed.
We tried for some time to negotiate directly with the LALC, but hit a wall. Eventually we helped our
client to lodge a Tribunal application for a works order and rent reduction. Those proceedings
finally grabbed the landlord's attention, and maintenance and repairs work
worth almost $200,000 has commenced. It is a fantastic result for our client, who is
looking forward to being able to live in her home with dignity in 2022.