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Social justice and the law in action

17 May 2021
Professor Simon Rice on Law Week 2021

For Law Week 2021, Professor Simon Rice speaks about law reform and the importance of community legal centres for access to justice.

Professor Simon Rice OAM, Sydney Law School

Professor Simon Rice OAM, Sydney Law School

Law Week is 17–23 May 2021 and is a nationwide initiative to promote community awareness and understanding of the law, the legal system and the legal profession.

It's an annual festival that is all about creating greater access to justice.

We spoke to Sydney Law School's Professor Simon Rice OAM, Kim Santow Chair of Law and Social Justice about his passion for social justice and how Sydney Law School enables law students to engage with issues of law and social justice.

You were a commercial lawyer for a short time before working in community legal centres, policy and advocacy, and then in legal education. What inspired you to work in the field of law and social justice? And what is social justice to you?

Cover of Australian Anti-Discrimination and Equal Opportunity Law

Australian Anti-Discrimination and Equal Opportunity Law

I was a volunteer law student at Redfern Legal Centre, and a clinical student at Kingsford Legal Centre, and that’s when I found an approach to law that aligned with my values.

I didn’t find commercial legal practice very rewarding, so I trusted my instinct and found work in law and social justice.

That experience is one reason why I am so supportive of volunteering and clinical opportunities for students.

I think of ‘social justice’ in the context of law as being about the ways that law both causes and responds to social marginalisation, oppression and disempowerment.
Professor Simon Rice OAM, Sydney Law School

Sydney Law School students can do law clinic placements with legal centres and public interest organisations. What are some of the real-world issues they work on and what are the benefits for the community?

‘Real world’ issues are the needs of any client — personal, commercial or government. What community legal centres deal with are the needs of people who need help, who are out of their depth, confused or overwhelmed by things in their life. Law may be the cause or the response, or both or neither.

A real world issue of social justice is rarely a purely legal issue.
Professor Simon Rice OAM, Sydney Law School

A so-called ‘tenancy’ problem may actually be an unemployment problem, and that in turn may be a health problem.

There are compounding benefits to law clinic work: one tenancy problem solved could be an entire family saved; one debt problem fixed could open up better mental health and job prospects. 

You coordinate a Law Reform Program that partners student volunteers and Sydney Law School academics in projects led by a variety of community legal centres, law reform commissions and advocacy organisations. Can you give us an example of how the program is making a difference?

Community legal centres know what goes on in people’s lives, and are well placed to say how things could be improved. But the service delivery demands (particularly from funders) are relentless, and legal centres have little time to research law reform issues. So the research we do in our Law Reform Program has supported law reform efforts on public interest issues as diverse as migrant visas, community housing, open justice, driving penalties, environmental regulation, and non-custodial sentencing options.

There’s a wealth of information online about legal rights, but the law, legal system and legal profession remain daunting and unaffordable for many. What’s your best tip on a first step for someone seeking to find out and assert their rights?

Cover of The Law Handbook

The Law Handbook (Redfern Legal Centre Publishing)

Two go-to online resources in New South Wales are The Law Handbook and LawAccess NSW .

But even at their best, written resources only give information, not advice, and are inaccessible for many people.

In many circumstances, there is no substitute for speaking to a lawyer, which is why the volunteer advice rosters of community legal centres are so important. 

Professor Simon Rice OAM is the Kim Santow Chair of Law and Social Justice at the University of Sydney Law School. Simon’s research interests include access to justice; lawyering and legal ethics; law reform; and human rights, equality and non-discrimination law.

Find out more about our Law Reform Program, Law and Social Justice Clinic and Public Interest Law Clinic.

Banner image: NSW Law Week logo.

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