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At the end of 2022, 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 1,236 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. (We have changed the names of the people in our stories).
In 2022, Clayton Utz marked 25 years of our pro bono practice. Our lawyers provided around 45,000 hours of pro bono work this year, with 90% of our lawyers and partners involved.
Clayton Utz is 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.
It seems impossible to comprehend, but we have acted for dozens of people held in Australia in slavery and forced labour.
This year, we worked with Anti-Slavery Australia to help a client from the Philippines. She had been enslaved in a suburban home for two years, leaving only to work at her captors’ grocery store and restaurant. She was threatened that if she tried to return home, her captors knew people in the Philippines who would harm her and her family.
We recovered $70,000 in Reparation Orders from her captors, after they had been convicted of forced labour offences.
This is one of half a dozen domestic servant slavery cases we have been involved in this year. These include three matters before the Federal Court where we hope to establish (in line with recent international case law) that diplomatic immunity does not apply to diplomats who kept domestic servants in a condition of modern slavery.
Our lawyers are helping to build “Towards Truth”, an online resource supporting truth-telling and reconciliation in Australia.
Pioneered by Professor Megan Davis and led by the Indigenous Law Centre and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, “Towards Truth” ambitiously aims to record how all laws and government policies have impacted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since 1788.
So far, our lawyers have mapped laws and policies in NSW on the themes of languages, dispossession of land, forced relocations, water rights, colonial policing, colonial diseases and participation in democracy. The (soon to be publicly available) resource will allow Australians to explore, understand, and contextualise the actions and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the context of the law and policy of the day.
Towards Truth was developed as a key step in the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s call for a truth-telling about our history, one of the three elements of Voice, Treaty, Truth. Contributing to Towards Truth is one way in which Clayton Utz and the Clayton Utz Foundation has accepted the invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart to walk together “in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”.
We have so many examples where an aging parent turned their life savings over to an adult child, only to end up homeless.
One is Leith, whose son had persuaded her to sell her home and lend him money to start a business. In return, he would construct a granny flat on his property. The loan remained unpaid and the business never took off. The son became violent, and told his mum that she was only permitted to remain at the property if she stayed inside the granny flat and did not communicate with anyone else. We helped Leith get back her $100,000.
We also helped Georgie recover $140,000 from her son, who had tried to suggest that Georgie’s life savings, provided to him to be able to purchase a house in which they would live together, was merely an obligation-free gift.
In another scenario, we act for residents who bought homes in a retirement village, and signed a contract for the supply of their meals. The retirement village operator unilaterally increased the price of meals, so that the same fortnightly fee now only covered one meal per day (instead of three), and no longer included supplies of bread, milk, fruit, cereals, spreads and pantry items.
One client is vegetarian, and another is diabetic, and the village has stopped meeting their dietary requirements. Our clients have been compelled to pay $9,500 a year for meals which they cannot eat, for so long as they remain the registered proprietors of their homes.
We are acting in Court proceedings to put this right.
Following the collapse of the ACBF /Youpla funeral scheme earlier this year, thousands of its First Nations members were left without the money to pay for funerals.
The completely misnamed “Aboriginal Community Benefits” Fund had been a case study in the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. The Australian Financial Complaints Authority has found consistently that First Nations consumers were deceived into thinking that they were buying into a financial product run by and for the benefit of Aboriginal people.
The ACBF/Youpla model was predatory door-to-door sales in remote and regional communities, marketing themselves as a First Nations business, and using the distinctive red, black and yellow colours of the Aboriginal flag. First Nations people were sold policies of little value, paid for through direct debit.
We have helped guide dozens of clients through the liquidation process, and the recently-established Commonwealth Scheme to cover some members’ funeral costs. We also supported the campaign for justice by consumer advocate organisations and Legal Aid NSW to help the families of fund members to conduct Sorry Business with dignity.
We were able to assist Dianne to recover $55,000 of funds, and help get her life back on track. Dianne wrote us:
Without your work, I would never have received justice. You took my case when I was at my worst. Because you represented me and advocated for me, I got to focus on the important things: healing from the abuse I had experienced, restoring relationships with my family and completing my university course. I have been able to get off the Disability Support Pension and begin a career.
Our client Mary experienced first-hand the perils of online dating. Thinking she could trust her new-found partner, Mary lent him all she had, amounting to a quarter of a million dollars. Things quickly turned sour when he refused to repay the loan, gaslighting her that the money had been a business investment, or alternatively given to him for safekeeping. Our team was able to help Mary recover $263,000.
Every year we act for far too many vulnerable workers on visas who have been exploited and underpaid by their employers.
Ariana worked at a café on Sydney’s North Shore. Over a period of 18 months, Ariana was paid well below her award rate, and denied overtime and penalty rates.
After our letter of demand did not work, we helped Ariana to bring a claim in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia for unpaid wages and leave entitlements. We settled the claim for more than $14,000.
Ariana was very pleased with this, and wrote that: “being an immigrant in this country is not an easy thing… I am extremely happy that you have helped me to get my money back and to have put back in place dodgy employers that are constantly taking advantage of us”.
We have helped Zhi with claims against three former employers in the food and hospitality industry, who had collectively underpaid him more than $16,000 over a period of 12 months. One claim is already settled, and Zhi is bringing Court actions against two other former employers.
After the first matter settled, Zhi told us how important it is for him to recover what he is owed: “My son recently underwent surgery in China which cost thousands of dollars, and he is also starting university. As my two children have to study, I work in Australia to support their studies and living costs back home . My whole family and I thank you and your team for your support and help, you have allowed us to weather these difficult times”.
Dilip was a cook in an Indian restaurant, who was underpaid for more than three years when it came to overtime, penalty rates, leave loading and meal breaks. In our case before the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, we settled Dilip’s claim at mediation for more than $30,000. This had a huge impact on how Dilip is able to live in Australia.
Our client was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer with less than 12 months left to live. When she tried to access her life insurance through her super fund, her claim was denied on the grounds that her policy had been cancelled and later reinstated on a restricted basis (meaning that there was no cover for our client’s cancer). Our client had no knowledge of the cancellation, as the notice was sent to her former address, and our client had continued to make contributions into the fund.
We helped our client complain to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA), who held that the super fund had knowingly issued the notice to the incorrect address and did not take steps to obtain alternative contact details. AFCA ordered our client to be paid half of the insured amount immediately (around $90,000), and we are now helping her in the Supreme Court to recover the balance of her insurance benefit.
Our client was issued a notice to vacate after her violent ex-partner forced his way into her apartment, refused to leave, and threw a table off her balcony endangering her neighbours.
We helped our client successfully challenge the notice on the grounds that the breach was caused by a person who had subjected her to family violence. This application was one of the first to rely on new Victorian Residential Tenancies Act provisions which recognise that family violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness in Australia.
Our client was issued a notice to vacate on the dubious basis that vacant possession was required for repairs or renovation. When we first spoke with our client, through an interpreter, we learned he had emigrated to Australia with his family after living for 11 years in a refugee camp, and he lived at the property with his wife, eight children and one grandchild. We helped him challenge the possession order and have it struck out because the landlord did not provide adequate information about the proposed repairs or renovation with the notice to vacate.
When our client found mould in her bathroom in May, and her shower broke in August, she had to wait until late November for the mould to be treated and a temporary shower bath to be installed by her real estate agent. Instead of proceeding to a hearing, we helped our client negotiate an outcome where she can stay at the property rent-free for three months, to allow her time to secure alternative (read: better, mould-free) accommodation.
Our client was the victim of a remote access scam in which his modest life savings were stolen from his bank account. He had carefully been saving money for a rental bond, and without the money he faced homelessness. We successfully helped our client request that the transaction be refunded by his bank on compassionate grounds.
Having lawyers fighting in your corner can change your life.
Our client is in his 50s, and as a child, had experienced physical abuse from his adoptive parents. As a teenager, he was transferred into institutional care, where he was sexually abused. Decades later, he continued to harbour feelings of blame towards his adoptive parents for putting him into state care. The father had passed away, and he had not spoken with his adoptive mother since she asked him for the money he had received following a compensation payout for the sexual abuse.
We worked with our client for two and a half years, ultimately securing orders in the Supreme Court to discharge the original adoption order from the 1960s. Our client told the Court that this was “an integral part of my healing process in seeking to recover from the abuse I experienced in my childhood; and a step I need to take in order to feel completely free from my adoptive mother”.
We have worked with the Foundation for Indigenous Sustainable Health since 2018 to help establish FISH Myalup Karla Waangkiny. This is a national prototype justice rehabilitation centre, located 140 kilometres south of Perth.
The centre has been co-designed with First Nations people. It offers a residential program where people who are engaged in the justice system can heal and receive holistic support to break intergenerational cycles of trauma, avoid re-engagement in the justice system, and transition successfully out of prison back into community.
Find out more about this amazing program here.
Since 2003, we have assisted 640 victims of crime to recover $11,737,187 in statutory compensation. These awards cannot take away the torment and pain inflicted on our clients, but they can go some way to helping to get the assistance they need and restart their lives.
Here are a few examples of our work this year. All names have been changed.
Olivia lives in NSW. She was sexually assaulted by her uncle between 7 and 10 years of age, had experienced family violence perpetrated by her mother, and acts of domestic violence by her ex-partner. We assisted Olivia to obtain $13,000 in statutory compensation. Olivia thanked us:
“The kindness, patience and empathy you exhibited while I was having difficulty talking about the issues at hand was exceptional. I very much appreciated your ability to be professional but also maintain the appropriate skills when dealing with sensitive issues for a person with extreme trauma and the PTSD surrounding these past incidents. I cannot thank you enough for how well you handled such sensitive topics.”
Tammy and her children were subject to serious physical and emotional abuse over a number of years by Tammy’s former partner. We assisted Tammy to secure nearly $140,000 in statutory compensation in Western Australia. Tammy wrote to us after the matter that:
“I have PTSD from the trauma I experienced, and discussing the events was extremely difficult for me… I was astounded when I read my personal statement you had prepared. It was pieced together in a perfect timeline from start to finish. The talent required to not only retain the correct information from my word vomit, but to timeline it so accurately is astounding. I don't normally write letters like this but I truly felt it was necessary, as I have never had this experience working with lawyers before”.
Melanie, a young woman from rural Victoria, had been assaulted as a child, and recently was sexually assaulted by a man who had made an offer on Snapchat to give Melanie a lift to a nearby town. She has endured complex PTSD, panic disorder and anorexia nervosa as a result of the trauma.
We helped Melanie to obtain $17,500 in financial assistance, plus ongoing counselling sessions, two 6-week art therapy drawing and painting courses, over $500 in art supplies, and $1,400 to purchase a laptop so that she can pursue nursing studies.
We have worked with Brenna since 2018 to wind back and eventually remove the financial management orders which had been in place for 20 years, and win back her independence.
Brenna recently had regained control of her disability support pension, and became responsible for her day-to-day living expenses including food and groceries, council rates and utilities, car expenses and insurance. She never missed a single bill or payment.
Nevertheless, the public trustee held over $120,000 in a managed estate which Brenna could not access, and for which she was charged more than $1,500 a year.
In August this year we obtained orders in the Supreme Court, declaring that Brenna was capable of managing her affairs and returning management and control of Brenna’s estate back to her.
Brenna told us that she was crying “happy tears” and that she “felt like the world was lifted off my shoulders and the future looks bright for my daughter and me now”. Brenna said that she would be “forever grateful that you have believed in my ability to manage my financial affairs and taken the time and effort to gather evidence and get this done”.
We are helping an aquaculture company operated by Aboriginal elders and traditional owners to develop their coastal blue carbon project involving seagrass regeneration. Seagrasses build and secure sediment, protecting coasts from erosion, storms and flooding. They are important habitats for fish and marine species, and mitigate against climate change by storing significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and ocean.
We are assisting the clients to acquire the rights to carbon sequestered in the project area and the right to obtain carbon credits generated by the project activities under an aquaculture lease and aquaculture licence.
The UN treaty on plastic pollution has been described by the UN Environment Programme as “an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it”.
Our lawyers are part of the Plastics Treaty Legal Advisory Service, a global initiative providing legal expertise to developing countries during the negotiation of a complex multilateral treaty. Our work helps to ensure that all actors – particularly those countries most affected by plastic pollution and potentially with the most to gain – can participate fully in the negotiating process.