After 12 years working in Melbourne’s west as CEO of Footscray, Wyndham and WEstjustice community legal centres, Denis Nelthorpe has decided to say farewell. Denis has been involved in the work of community legal centres for more than 40 years and remains passionate about consumer law and the need for justice for low income and disadvantaged members of the community. He was appointed an Adjunct Professor of Law for the Victoria University Law School in 2014 and was a consumer Board member of the Financial Ombudsman Service until 2015. He is also a past president of the Consumers’ Federation of Australia and a past CEO of the Consumer Credit Legal Service 1986-91 and the Consumer Law Centre Victoria 1993-98.
Denis is the quintessential social justice warrior, driven by a deep understanding of what it means to live in a position of disadvantage in society. You will be dearly missed by your friends at WEstjustice.
Q: When did you first become part of the CLC movement?
I began in my final year of law in 1976 at Springvale CLC in the clinical program. In 1978 I heard that the fledgling Tenants Union was not just defending tenants but suing landlords – so I became a volunteer and occasional staff member. In 1979 the now Justice Kevin Bell and I began work on the Poverty Law Practice starting at Fitzroy and eventually establishing Footscray Legal Centre because the legal profession couldn’t cope with our more radical proposal. In 1982 I helped establish the Consumer Credit Legal Service and that was the start of a passion for civil and consumer law reform that would stay with me until the present day.
Q: You have had a major influence in the shaping and design of the CLC and consumer movement. If you had to choose three of your proudest professional moments, what would that be?
In the late 80’s I was part of the CCLS legal team that won a licencing case against US multinational HFC Finance. Two solicitors (including the incredible Paul Bingham) and an article clerk took on the might of the legal profession – Two QC’s, three juniors, and Allen’s plus an in-house legal team and we won. I was so out of my comfort zone but stayed the course over nine months of litigation. We negotiated a Cy Pres settlement for $2.25 million to establish the Consumer Law Centre – now part of CALC.
Wearing my more practical hat I created the “bugger off” letter as a precedent to respond to debt collection letters of demand to impoverished debtors. That led to the Bulk Debt project that achieved waivers of debt of $20 million for 5000 debtors around Australia. The project permanently embedded debt waiver as a common tool in legal centres and financial counselling agencies.
My third highlight was playing a significant role in bringing PILCH (now Justice Connect) to Melbourne from Sydney and then extending the pro bono services to include the Homeless Persons Clinics after reading about them in a John Gresham novel “The Street Lawyer”. I was lucky enough to have the role of recruiting the large firms and homeless agencies to get the clinics up and running.
Q: As well as setting up CLCs and improving access to justice for society’s most vulnerable, you have ALSO spent time mentoring and supporting a number of young community lawyers. What is motivating this?
When I arrived back in the West in 2007 generalist centres were struggling in many ways. I wanted to create opportunities to pursue innovative legal projects that would reinvigorate legal centres and make better use of the skills of some of our outstanding young lawyers. Footscray and Wyndham CLC’s became laboratories for innovation led by new lawyers eager try different forms of service delivery and alternative solutions to legal problems. I found mentoring these lawyers exhilarating and the results help build the reputation of those Centres and WEstjustice.
Q: From your experience, what makes the difference between a policy idea that ‘washes out’ and one that gains traction and creates change?
The best policy solutions begin with targeted casework that identifies systemic issues. Often, targeted casework raises new problems or looks at them from a different perspective. The solutions then need to offer something different by way of resolution – not just the same old suggestions. As community lawyers we need to think outside the square. Sometimes it also comes down to marketing – making your solution sound different and achievable!
Q: From your perspective, what are the myths or misconceptions about our sector that are getting in the way?
I believe the CLC sector has come a long way in the last 10 years. Better funding has helped but the move away from generalist clinics to work targeted at specific client groups and legal issues has also created more opportunities. CLC’s have also realised that our clients are not middle class and may need solutions targeted to their needs and lifestyles. One significant myth that continues is that CLC salaries will deter staff from long term commitment. In my view poor management of centres and a lack of opportunities to make a difference will prove much more likely to drive staff out of the sector.
Q: What would be your number one piece of advice for those interested in making policy change?
Change does not have to be big, spectacular and earth shattering! The waiver letters largely did not require a change of law but rather a change in the way of thinking about the problem. It will often require a number of different parties to change their position so thought needs to be given about how best to persuade different people and organisations to change their position. It will not always be adversarial!
Q: And finally, what is next for Denis Nelthorpe?
Not sure! Maybe a formal role as lawyer or advisor on a part time basis but I hope to spend some time offering to mentor staff (on a voluntary basis) in Centres that would like assistance with civil, debt and consumer issues or project development. The time is right for all centres to develop innovative projects for their communities.