As we enter a third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reflecting on the past 12 months and proud to be sharing a snapshot of ARC Justice’s work for the year in our 2020-21 Annual Report.

COVID-19 has thrown up no shortage of challenges in every home, business and sector of Victorian life. Inequalities in our communities have been exposed and reinforced. Human rights have been at the forefront, while the role of government and balancing of individual freedoms with our responsibility to community, have resulted in lively and contentious debate.

In this environment, free, independent legal and tenancy support have never been more vital. Nor has ARC Justice’s role in upholding the human rights of regional and rural Victorians. Whether we are appearing for clients in court; building legal and tenancy rights literacy; or advocating for systemic improvements for regional and rural Victorians; we have an important role in advancing equal access to justice and human rights.

We have seen a remarkable increase in the intensity and complexity of legal, tenancy and social issues affecting our clients. For some clients, the lack of suitable supports has adversely affected their outcomes and mental health.

Many services are only now starting to transition back to face-to-face services and their waitlists are the longest they have ever been. COVID-19’s impact has been no less disruptive on how we work. For some, the lasting memory of this year will be our agility to transfer from the office to bedroom, to the kitchen table and then back again, while juggling
home schooling and care responsibilities.

This has not diminished our impact. The creativity, problem-solving capacity and commitment of our staff is illustrated throughout this report. We have found ways to keep serving our communities as lockdowns came and went, including maintaining open doors throughout all but the most restrictive periods.

The flexibility that the pandemic response has demanded will continue to shape the way we work. We will build on technological advancements and continue mixed-model service delivery to facilitate access to justice. Remote access to court hearings means our lawyers are able to represent clients at satellite courts more often.

This seemingly simple innovation improves access to justice because it saves people having to self-represent or seek adjournments, prolonging their matter. At a systemic level, we continue to advocate for the realisation of a safe and fair justice system. Five years on from the Royal Commission into Family Violence, our lawyers have continued to work with the sector to implement and adapt reforms to best meet the needs of our clients.

We have undertaken important research this year into women’s experience of the family violence intervention order system, and we look forward to sharing the findings of this research with you next year.

The Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System’s report was released this year. Many findings align with our observations and the experiences of our clients, who are all too often struggling to access supports. We have seen a significant rise in clients presenting with stress and mental health conditions, which is compounded by lack of available treatment services, sometimes resulting in clients interacting with the justice system. ARC Justice welcomes the opportunity to advocate for improvements to services and their resourcing.

Next year, ARC Justice will be reflecting on our successful 2017 to 2022 strategic plan and our areas of focus for the next five years. Work has commenced this year to understand legal and tenancy needs in our community, which will inform this plan.

We have also undertaken a substantial review of our organisational branding as a part of this process. We look forward to getting further input into our strategy next year from partners and the community.

Reflecting on the achievements and challenges of the past year, ARC Justice has emerged from the pandemic strong and well placed for the challenges ahead. This is only possible because of the commitment and contributions of our staff and supporters. We take this opportunity to thank our Board of Directors, our staff and volunteers, our local partners, funders, and our supporters. We look forward to continuing to work together to advocate for access to justice in regional and rural Victoria.

Andrew Chittenden, Chairperson

Hayley Mansfield, Chief Executive Officer (outgoing)