Merging three community legal centres was never going to be easy, and then the pandemic came along.
Circle Green Community Legal was formed in October 2020, following the merger of three community legal centres specialising in workplace and discrimination law, residential tenancy law, and migration law.
The foundations of the merger were laid during many years of planning, but one thing no one factored in was a global pandemic.
“The areas of law we merged were the greatest hit.”
Speaking at their Hay Street office, Sara Kane, Circle Green’s Chief Executive Officer, said continuing to serve the needs of their clients whilst grappling with remote working was the team’s top priority.
“We merged through a pandemic while operating remotely and then the areas of law we merged were the greatest hit,” she said.
Community Legal Centres
How all this came about goes back to 2011 when there were ten specialist Community Legal Centres (CLCs) in WA.
Specialist community legal centres generally focus on one area of law, such as residential tenancy, employment, or migration law, or a particular client cohort such as women or young people.
Discussions started amongst these CLCs about how sustainability could be improved within the sector while focusing on and maintaining good outcomes for clients.
Early talks in 2011 looked at the feasibility of co-location and sharing of office space. In 2014, discussions centred around social enterprises and other income diversification strategies.
A Lotterywest funded sustainability research piece in 2017 investigated different models of community legal service delivery. The modelling identified that a merger, or the creation of a specialist CLC hub, would support CLCs to achieve good client and community outcomes.
“The [Lotterywest] research and modelling gave us a bit more momentum to come together and form a memorandum of understanding between each of the ten specialist CLCs,” Sara recalled. “We looked at IT sharing, bulk purchase supply contracts, bookkeeping and how we could resource and share the backend office operations. A merger or amalgamation was also on the table.”
One key benefit of the merger, Sara explained, was to reduce the “referral roundabout” that many clients experience.
By July 2019 there were three CLCs ready to merge: Tenancy WA; Employment Law Centre of WA; and The Humanitarian Group. Sara was the then Manager at the Employment Law Centre of WA.
Other CLCs are welcome to merge in future, but the group at the time “just needed to make a call to progress”, Sara added.
The inaugural Board meeting of the new organisation was held in August 2019, and the organisation was incorporated as T.H.E Community Legal Centre on 2 October 2019. In November that year, a Project Manager was appointed to operationalise the merger process.
The merger project was well underway with the aim of bringing the three CLCs together by March 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic came along.
“We were trying to merge by March 2020, but we had a pandemic,” Sara said.
The three CLCs commenced remote service delivery and operations by end of March 2020, putting plans to formally merge under one roof on pause.
“We ended up having to source a loan.”
Focus was on business continuity and service delivery. Many of the resources the three CLCs were relying on to progress the merger were delayed, discontinued or repurposed to support remote operations. This included several funding applications to expand and renovate the Hay Street HQ, create a communications plan, develop a website, ensure legal practice management oversight and coordination, carry out a much-needed IT upgrade, and provide governance support.
“We ended up having to source a loan and engaged pro bono to carry out some of the merger work,” Sara explained.
To add to the pressure of remote service delivery and planning for a merger, the areas of law that the three merging community legal centres practiced – tenancy (Tenancy WA), workplace (Employment Law Centre of WA), and migration and family and domestic violence (The Humanitarian Group) – were amongst the legal practice areas and client groups hardest hit by the pandemic.
On the tenancy side, legislative changes were made, including a moratorium on evictions and the banning of rent increases. Legal practitioners had to urgently upskill on the new legislation and government policy to ensure quality and timely legal advice was being provided to residential tenants.
For the Employment Law Centre of WA, the introduction of JobKeeper kept staff busy, determining what the changes would mean for employees and business downturn, leading to increased demand for advice and education materials on redundancy, termination and payment of entitlements.
For The Humanitarian Group, enquiries were up from temporary visa holders.
“There was also a huge cohort of temporary visa holders who could not access any of the JobKeeper or JobSeeker payments. They were really feeling the pressure in terms of accommodation, employment and food security,” said Sara.
“Over 15,000 calls just for tenancy advice.”
“There was also a lot of family and domestic violence that went underreported while we were working remotely as they had no face-to-face appointment access.”
Despite these challenges, the merger progressed with Sara Kane appointed as Circle Green’s CEO in July 2020, and a hard deadline for Thursday, 1 October 2020 was set for the completion of the merger.
The new service model, organisational structure, staffing profile and brand was established, along with all other organisations requirements.
The merger finally operationalised with no downturn in service delivery and all current clients migrated to T.H.E community Legal Centre Inc now trading as Circle Green Community Legal.
COVID-19 related legislation changes and government policy continue to place pressure on the service with high demand for legal assistance in 2021. To gain a picture of the continued demands on the services provided, Circle Green Community Legal has kept track of the numbers.
From January to June 2021, Circle Green received over 15,000 calls just for tenancy advice. In addition to the calls there were 30 web enquiries per day relating to tenancies. In comparison, prior to COVID-19 and the merger, Tenancy WA was receiving 30 calls for legal advice per day.
Whist the merger process was many things, including challenging and stressful, the new entity saw good outcomes for clients from the outset.
Better client outcomes were the focus of the merger. Sara says Circle Green uses an internal “legal health check” to ensure clients are assisted seamlessly. A client can make contact and be triaged on a tenancy issue, but the check may also identify the loss of a job, or a visa issue, or a family and domestic violence issue. This allows the client to receive legal advice in different areas of law save repeating their personal situation to another service provider. “We can also assist the client a lot further with their legal issue. Before it was generally one-off advice,” adds Sara.
Although it is still early days, there have been several service and structural changes to ensure Circle Green services remain responsive, high quality, and meet clients’ needs.
Why Circle Green?
There was a lot at stake to develop a new name and identity when the three merging CLC’s came together. The name had to remain open should any other CLC’s with their diverse cohorts or specialist areas of law wish to join with Circle Green in the future. References to houses, jobs or visas would be problematic.
The circle visually denotes the wraparound support which addresses client needs, and the multiple circles show how one issue can have a ripple effect on other aspects of a person’s life. Also, if people’s legal problems are resolved, there are often positive ripple effects on other areas of their lives.
Circles can also represent community, solidarity, storytelling, and a targeted, holistic approach.
The colour green often relates to wellbeing, nourishment, new life, sustenance, safety, health, openness, and inclusivity.
Further, the green circle is easily identifiable. “In terms of visibility for people that may have difficulty reading, writing or speaking English just seeing the circle and the colour green, they know they are in the right place,” Sara explains. “That is why we have got the logo everywhere on our office exterior, so people who are referred to our service know they are in the right place.”
Think again if you think things would be a little quieter now that the Circle Green team is 12 months into the merger. The legal issues in the emerging and evolving space of mandatory vaccinations for some occupations and industries keep the inquiries for legal assistance coming in.
To assist the community with the rapidly evolving situation, Circle Green recently created a set of a Q&A’s on COVID-19 vaccinations for WA workers. They continue to develop materials in a timely manner for people to readily access online.
Watch This Space
Circle Green will be launching a new website in 2022 that will pull all three merging CLCs resources, information, and helpful tips together into one website.
Circle Green will also be launching a range of new projects, legal services, and new roles in 2022!