27 March 2024

Joining Fitzroy Legal Service in November last year as Service Director and Principal Lawyer of the organisation’s flagship Night Service, Rebecca Johnston-Ryan shares what motivates her to turn up five nights a week and provide people across Victoria with an initial access point to justice.

Directing one of the state’s largest volunteer-powered legal services, what’s a day in your job look like?

It’s different each day, if I’m honest! Because the service operates five nights a week from 6 to 9pm, my day involves late starts. I like to spend some time with our volunteers to make sure everyone has a space to work in and we have an opportunity to discuss any of their matters before they speak with their clients. 

During Night Service hours I’m checking in with volunteers and clients to make sure everything is going smoothly, answering questions as they arise. I also check all advice given and the documents drafted for our clients before they are sent out. 

I also enjoy spending time at our Reservoir office for Night Service every second Wednesday; it’s fantastic to see our legal advice services being offered to our Darebin community by such a great group of volunteers!

Given it’s been run for over 50 years, what’s special about this service that keeps it going?

We provide that initial access point to justice that members of our community might otherwise not have. An even more important role that the Night Service plays is empowering our clients to be able to advocate for themselves by giving them the information and the tools they need to do so. It is incredible when we have a client get in touch to let us know that they were able to self-advocate and achieve their desired outcome after receiving advice from us.  

All said and done, there aren’t too many other services out there in Victoria or Australia doing what the Night Service does!    

If the Night Service ceased to exist, we would absolutely be adding that figure of people being turned away, which is a truly horrible thought. 

Rebecca Johnston-Ryan, Service Director and Principal Lawyer – Night Service

How many clients and volunteers does your service engage each week?

On average, we engage with approximately 130 clients per week, which requires approximately 48 volunteers across our administration, paralegal, and lawyer volunteers to make that happen. That’s close to one volunteer to every three clients. The ability to support that number of clients relies so heavily on having volunteers available and signed up in advance to take on these advice shifts. 

What are the key issues you see coming through the door of late?

At the moment we are seeing a high volume of clients with significant tenancy matters, particularly VCAT hearings for possession of the property by the landlord due to significant rent arrears, notices of rent increases, and issues with properties not meeting the minimum standards. 

It’s clear from the matters being brought to Night Service that the current cost of living crisis is having a massive impact on many tenants being able to afford the basics of life including a safe place to live.

It’s also a common theme that the quality of rentals aren’t necessarily meeting the minimum requirements to be expected from a rental property, and the residential tenancy system in Victoria is still not as robust regarding tenant rights in this area as it could be.

Given it’s a generalist service, what’s the scope of matters that volunteers provide advice on?

We see a lot of different issues at the Night Service – family law and divorce matters, family violence issues and the need for protection from family violence, personal safety intervention order matters. We are one of the only services in Victoria providing comprehensive advice on personal safety intervention order matters, and you cannot obtain duty lawyer assistance for these issues at court.

We also have a fairly constant high volume of enquiries regarding fines and infringements, especially where clients may have multiple current and historical fines at various stages of enforcement and they need help navigating their way through the complexity of dealing with that situation.

We also see employment matters. The list goes on!

What would happen to those clients if the service closed?

Community legal centres (CLCs) and the services we provide are crucial to making sure that as many people as possible can have access to justice. Community Legal Centres Australia State of the Sector 2022-23 survey report: A sector in crisis revealed that despite the overwhelming demand for services more than 350,000 people were turned away from CLCs across Australia in the 2022-23 year due to inadequate resources. 

If the Night Service ceased to exist, we would absolutely be adding that figure of people being turned away, which is a truly horrible thought. 

What do you love most about your job and what’s the biggest challenge you face?

There are so many things I love about my job! The thing I love the most is how welcoming and inclusive all of my colleagues are. It’s a rarity to find a workplace where you immediately feel comfortable, that you belong there, and you feel supported and that your contributions are valued. 

I also really enjoy working with so many volunteers who are dedicated to social justice and ensuring access to justice for some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our community. The care and skill that our volunteers demonstrate in giving advice to our clients blows me away every single night when I see them in action and then review their files after the fact.

You work with so many passionate volunteer lawyers. What key advice would you give them to forging careers that make a positive impact on people’s lives?

If you’re wanting to make a difference through your career, the piece of advice I would give is to just seize as many opportunities as you can to learn something new.  I’ve loved having the opportunity to explore many different areas of law through a career in the Victorian Public Service, and it has made for an excellent knowledge base in a broad-spectrum advice clinic such as the Night Service.

How can people support the continuation of the Night Service?

There aren’t too many other services out there in Victoria or Australia doing what Night Service does!  Consider whether you might have capacity to volunteer with us, and keep an eye out for our volunteer recruitment announcement planned for mid-year 2024. If you’re not able to donate your time, you can donate some of your hard-earned dollars to make sure we can keep providing the services that we do.

CLCs are underfunded across the board and experiencing an increase in demand for legal help from people with increasingly more complex needs. Helping our sector lobby for increased CLC funding is another way you can help FLS and the Night Service!

Rebecca Johnston-Ryan is an experienced Solicitor, Prosecutor and Investigator with a demonstrated history in the government administrative law and regulatory space. Prior to joining FLS in 2023, Beck was a Senior Associate working in public law, litigation and coronial spaces. Beck has a Master of Laws from La Trobe University, and has been an active Board Member including for the Law Institute of Victoria between 2021 and 2023. View more on Rebecca and our Senior Leadership Team.

Find out more about volunteering with the Night Service and how you can support its impact by donating today.

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