23 October 2023
Volunteering with Fitzroy Legal Service (FLS) from 1982 for close to 25 years, solicitor and former Australian Government Solicitor, Michael Kingston reflects on his time at FLS and the ongoing need for community access to law.
There’s a need to address the here and now, while also looking to the horizon. I believe Fitzroy Legal Service does that.Michael Kingston, solicitor and former long-serving volunteer
Graduating from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Laws in 1981, Michael started his justice career as an Articled Clerk at a commercial law firm while volunteering Monday nights at FLS under the supervision of long-serving volunteer and life member, Brian Wright. Brian has served as a Magistrate since 2004.
“Working with Brian and others at FLS I learnt a lot about the law and FLS’s diverse client base,” Michael said. “It provided me with experience in different areas of law that I wouldn’t otherwise have had access to.”
“Certainly, through the 80s and 90s, there was a core group of people who volunteered consistently on Monday nights. We’d get together and go out for dinner afterwards to discuss our night and whatever else was going on.”
“I would hear that there were different cultures across the night-time volunteer team, and Mondays were particularly known as having a happy culture (which is not to say the other nights didn’t)!”
Building a diverse and impactful career that spanned corporate law as a Partner at Mallesons Stephen Jaques and inhouse counsel for BHP through to being a Barrister and Chief Legal Officer for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), Michael describes his pro bono cases as some of the most rewarding.
“One case involved a man’s battle to be recognised as a refugee and for him (and his wife and children) to be allowed to stay in Australia. We lost twice, I think narrowly, in the Federal Court seeking to set aside a decision denying his refugee status,” Michael adds.
“Then the ASRC prepared a submission asking the then Minister for Immigration, Amanda Vanstone, to exercise her personal discretion to allow our client to stay. When the client rang to tell me the Minister had agreed to let him stay, it was one of the best moments of my legal career.”
As a former board member of the Human Rights Law Centre, when it comes to legal change, Michael believes in the value of a dual pronged approach of ‘keeping the lights’ on by doing the necessary day to day legal work whilst also pursuing legal reform.
“Systemic change might be five years or more away. That leaves real problems today that need resolving. That’s people with legal problems who need help and somewhere to go.”
“There’s a need to address the here and now, while also looking to the horizon. I believe FLS does that.”
Drawing on his extensive volunteering at FLS, Michael reflects on the many ways the law impacts on people’s lives. “There’s a big difference between working with a client who is an individual with a case going on, versus working with someone who is an employee of a large company with a legal problem.”
“Access to law is partly about education, but fundamentally it’s about money. Many people don’t have access to legal aid, and they rely on community legal services like FLS to navigate pressing issues.”
“Sometimes access to a lawyer removes a legal problem and it usually at least makes a problem easier to understand and deal with. Whether it’s helping to explain a document or helping to navigate default notices, a simple intervention can have a big impact.”
Over 40 years later and Michael continues to connect with his peers from volunteering and helps FLS to keep the lights on. “There’s the age-old question of whether you give to the local food bank or pilot the proposal to change the world. There’s probably room for both.”
Something we couldn’t agree with more. FLS’s volunteering program is powered by over 270 volunteers, 190 of whom support the Night Service which has served over 3000 community members last financial year.
Michael Kingston was the Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) from 2016. Previously he has worked as Chief Legal Officer of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) and as a partner at Mallesons Stephen Jaques.