How First Step Legal is supporting some of Melbourne's most disadvantaged communities

First Step Legal
First Step Legal
Clare Kelly
by Clare Kelly
17 March 2023
First Step Legal (FSL) is a pro-bono community legal service, assisting some of the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised community members in Melbourne.

FSL works to ensure that the stress of dealing with a legal matter does not derail an individual’s rehabilitative efforts.

The FSL model is unique – working hand-in-glove with a client’s doctor, therapist, or support worker, to provide quality legal service that supports the whole person. The model is all about locating legal help where people need it and working to prevent further contact with the justice system. Virgin Unite is incredibly proud to invest in and support FSL as it works to challenge the unacceptable with a compassionate and innovative approach.

The last two years have been huge for FSL, as it has expanded partnerships across three new settings including: a mental health outpatient clinic attached to a major public hospital, a family violence service and a crisis housing service.

First Step Legal
First Step Legal

Through these new partnerships FSL aims to demonstrate the value of embedding legal help in multiple settings, making it easier for people to see a lawyer. And while the three new settings are diverse, they have in common a complex client group who experience multiple, intersecting problems, and who often cycle in and out of the justice system.

There is clear evidence that people benefit most from joined up services that address the interaction between their different life problems and issues. “The fact that First Step Legal’s approach involved my entire recovery and rehabilitation made the most difference,” shared a FSL client. Another said: “First Step Legal helped me become more accountable for my actions, to see that I need to help myself.”

Many of First Step Legal’s clients are impacted by cumulative harms arising from childhood abuse and neglect, parental rejection, sexual and physical assault – and trauma arising from contact with the justice system itself. In 2022, First Step Legal drew heavily from disciplines to enhance their model of ‘trauma informed, compassionate lawyering’.

First Step Legal
First Step Legal

Central to FSL’s work is heavy investment in building stable, trusting relationships with clients and privileging client choice and control in directing how their legal matter is progressed. This gives ownership of life choices back to clients, reduces stigma, and increases the likelihood of sustained recovery. “The thing that was most important was having as many one-on-one conversations as I needed. First Step Legal were very understanding and non-judgmental and didn't feed me with nonsense – they just told me how it is,” said a client of FSL.

Unfortunately, while integrated legal services are accepted as best practice, there is still limited empirical data regarding their effectiveness. To address this deficit, First Step Legal is backing up its client facing work with a commitment to rigorous outcome evaluation, recently partnering with a leading academic institution to build the evidence base regarding health justice partnerships – collecting new data sets and client narratives to show the impact of our embedded legal services.

As FSL expands its partnerships, builds the evidence base, and works to achieve structural change, its primary focus is always the clients in need. In 2022 alone FSL helped 191 people with 501 legal problems, and provided a further 130 consultations to health staff about legal problems.

To learn more about FSL and to support its important work visit the website and read its most recent annual update.