Our Senior Associate Peter Uniacke has been a volunteer for community legal services for 30 years, most recently at the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service at Wodonga.
To mark his nomination as volunteer of the year by Upper Murray Family Care, Peter sat down with us to talk more about his love of volunteering.
Why do you volunteer at community legal services? Why for so many years?
I guess it is something that just becomes a good habit to get into. I started out so many years ago as a young law undergraduate looking to experience what legal practice would be like. Community legal services deal in everyday legal issues for everyday people. As you become more specialised throughout your career, it is refreshing to be able to apply your legal skills in an area that will keep you grounded.
How has your volunteering changed in the 30 years that you’ve been doing this?
When I started in Melbourne in the 1980s, it was at the Monash Oakleigh and Springvale Legal Services, so the language barrier was more of a challenge than it tends to be in a regional centre. Although in the last five-plus years that has changed as more and more recent migrants are coming to settle in regional areas.
The types of work have remained fairly much the same: family law general advice, Magistrates’ Court matters – traffic, minor crime and domestic violence advice – and the occasional neighbourhood dispute.
One of the major changes has been the steady erosion of areas where legal aid has been available. I have been practising for long enough to catch the tail-end of when it used to be available for some Civil claims.
What is your standout memory of volunteering for community legal services?
My experience has been in, if you will, ‘legal triage’. Clients approach a community legal service for initial guidance with their legal problems. Volunteers gather the details, assess legal need, and refer the person on for help. It is very satisfying work to watch someone go from bewilderment and anxiety to having some knowledge and plan to solve their problem.
Would you encourage other staff to volunteer at a community legal service?
Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be all that time-consuming; and the rewards are the satisfaction of helping people to help themselves.