Behind the scenes: from dream to reality

PIAC’s launch on 29 July 1982 by the then NSW Attorney
General, Frank Walker QC (pictured), was a significant moment in the history of Australian
community legal services and public interest advocacy.

The Law Foundation, established a decade earlier to meet
broad goals of community legal education and the improvement of the legal
system, had been concerned for some time about the restricted access to the
law, particularly for disadvantaged people.

Similarly, community legal centres found that their capacity
to take on test cases and run campaigns was limited by their need to provide
desperately needed legal services to local residents in areas such as family
law and debt.

The Legal Aid Commission, which was the main source of legal aid
in the NSW, also recognised that its focus had been on individual cases, rather
than on policy-oriented cases, and that this left a significant gap in legal

The director of the Law Foundation, Terry Purcell, and the
Law Foundation’s senior research officer, Peter Cashman, had seen a range of
public interest groups operating very successfully in North America and they
suggested that a public interest organisation be established in Australia.

Law Foundation approached the Legal Aid Commission in 1981 with a proposal to
establish a steering committee for a new centre dedicated to public interest
advocacy. The steering committee’s members were: 

  • Virginia Bell, a solicitor at the Redfern Legal Centre
    and a board member at the Law Foundation (now a Justice of the High Court of
  • Anne Gorman, the director of planning, research and
    evaluation at the Department of Youth and Community Services and a board member
    at the Law Foundation; 
  • Terence Purcell, the director and a board member of the
    Law Foundation; 
  • Peter Cashman, the senior research officer at the Law
  • Michael Grove QC, a member of the Legal Aid Commission; 
  • John Kirkwood, a senior lecturer in law and a member of
    the Legal Aid Commission; 
  • Mark Richardson, a senior research officer at the Legal
    Aid Commission; 
  • Ken Shadbolt, a public solicitor; 
  • John White, the deputy chairman of the Legal Aid
    Commission; and 
  • John Maddison, a former Attorney General and a
    consultant to the Law Foundation.

The steering committee issued a discussion paper floating
the idea of a public interest centre. It received over a hundred replies
enthusiastically supporting the idea.

The Law Foundation voted to give $120,000
to fund a public interest centre in its first year of operation. The Legal Aid
Commission agreed to provide support through special consideration of
applications for legal aid in public interest cases.

PIAC was first established as a division of the Law
Foundation although it was always intended that PIAC would eventually be set up
as a separate organisation. This happened with its incorporation in June 1984. 

During its early years, PIAC was largely dependent on the
Law Foundation for its core funding. As it built up its reputation, the legal
aid funds from test cases climbed and PIAC attracted separate project funding.
The Legal Aid Commission also provided an annual grant as part of its funding
of community legal centres.

In 1986, the Law Foundation was instrumental in securing
PIAC’s future by obtaining a capital grant of $1 million from the trustees of
the Solicitors’ Statutory Interest (Westpac) Fund.  This grant was invested by the Foundation and the interest
earned met a significant proportion of PIAC’s running costs. 

PIAC’s original staff members were Peter Cashman, director;
Susan Bothman, solicitor; Kate Harrison, project officer; and Jenny Reid,

Following its incorporation in June 1984, Virginia Bell,
Colleen Chesterman, Jenny D’Arcy, Anne Gorman, Betty Hounslow, Terry Purcell,
Jarka Spika, Kate Short, Phillipa Smith, Paul Stein, Merrilyn Walton and John
White became PIAC’s first board of directors. 

In the 30 years since its establishment, PIAC has grown in
size and capacity. Hundreds of people have been involved with PIAC’s success. 

As well as those people who have held formal positions with
PIAC, there are many barristers, private law firms and their lawyers, staff
from other CLCs, members of steering, reference and advisory groups, trainers
and academics who have contributed enormously to PIAC’s work and success.

Frank Walker QC passed away in 2012. Photo: Fairfax Media.

Return to Celebrating 30 years of public interest advocacy

Return to People power: commitment, energy and dedication

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