About Us

Our history

Women’s Legal Service acknowledges the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia as the traditional owners of this land and supports the right of Indigenous people to self determination and cultural expression.

Women’s Legal Service was formed in 1984 after a meeting of committed women, who were drawn from a mix of welfare, counselling and legal backgrounds, identified a need for a community legal centre to be set up that would respond to legal issues of concern to women in Queensland. Women’s experience of the legal system was often distinctly different to that of men because of their role as primary carers of children, their financial dependence on their male partner and/or lower economic status or because they  had suffered domestic violence/ sexual assault or other violence. Women’s Legal Service was formed to assist women and to advocate for legal change. The founding members wanted a legal system that was fair and just for women and that would be responsive to their experiences, especially their experiences of violence.

Women’s Legal Service began as a volunteer service offering telephone legal advice and counselling, and support from a room on the verandah at Women’s House Shelter at West End. Even at this formative stage of the Service's development, there was a strong emphasis on a holistic approach to responding to women’s legal issues – with lawyers and support workers operating as a team.  A cooperative model of both social work and legal practice remains a key feature of our current service delivery where we aim to see the 'whole woman' and not just her legal problem. We recognised the need to provide emotional and practical assistance side by side with legal help.

At the time, providing legal advice by telephone was regarded as quite radical. Despite this, Women's Legal Service recognised that many women had particular issues about accessing the service for face-to-face appointments for a range of reasons including child care, domestic violence, disability or because they lived in a rural, regional or remote part of the State. The telephone was the only means for many women to access the Service and it remains an integral part of our service delivery.

While the Service was still seeking funding and developing its service in 1985, it became involved in the case of Beryl Birch and a public campaign about the inadequacy of the self-defence laws in Queensland for women who killed a violent partner. This placed us on the map of social justice advocates for women in this state. Demand for the Service grew and in 1986, Women’s Legal Service received some funding to employ a part-time coordinator. In 1989, the Service received enough State government money to employ its first full-time day time solicitor and coordinator, Ms Zoe Rathus. The organisation continued to grow and continued to be a voice in important law reform.

With limited resources, it was recognised that changing the law to make it more responsive to women, especially those who had been victims of domestic violence, was a way that the Service could extend its influence and reach, and the number of women it could assist. Law reform became a major focus of the organisation as a primary prevention strategy and continues as a priority today. In 1989, Women’s Legal Service solicitors began their first visits to the women’s prison, a service that continues to this date. This service focuses on the range of family-related issues that are faced by incarcerated women – not the offences which have led to being imprisoned. We also produced our first community legal education publication on domestic violence. It was part of a small set of resources dealing with separation. The latest version of the Service's Separation booklet is now available on the website. Women's Legal Service has also been integrally involved in many community development projects. The most longstanding project was the development and involvement over many years in the Domestic Violence Court Assistance Network (DVCAN).

In 1994, the Australian Law Reform Commission's report on Equality before the Law recognised the important work of Women's Legal Services in Australia in providing specialised legal service delivery to women and recommended the establishment of Women's Legal Services in all States and an increase in funding for existing services, including the Service. The 1995 Justice Statement picked up on and implemented recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission's inquiry and the Service received an increase in Commonwealth monies which, for the first time in its history, provided the Service with a relatively stable funding base.

In the late 1990s, we became deeply concerned by the negative experiences of our clients in the family law system. The Family Law Act had been amended in 1996 and the changes seemed to make it very difficult for women to raise domestic violence as an issue and children were being sent on contact visits with their abusive fathers. Research undertaken by the Abuse Free contact group, of which Women's Legal Service was an active member, was published in An Acceptable Risk: A Report on Child Contact Arrangements where there is Violence in the Family which is still regularly cited when describing the impact of the 1996 changes for women and children. In collaboration with Carinity (formerly the Talera Centre), a training package on this issue has been finalised and will be uploaded to the website shortly.

In 1996, the Service purchased its current property, a 1918 Queenslander on the bustling Ipswich Road, Annerley with the assistance of a mortgage from Forrester's Community Finance. This was the beginning of a significant new chapter in the Service’s current history.

We have undertaken two major renovation projects on our premises since it was purchased (including raising the building, extensions and the installation of a lift to ensure accessibility of the service for all women). Similar to individuals owning a home, owning a building has been a major positive for the Service, providing a welcoming environment for women and being a stable base for the organisation even in uncertain times.

Women’s Legal Service would not be where it is today without the contribution of the many staff, management committee members, volunteers and supporters who have all made important contributions since we were first established in 1984.  Today, Women’s Legal Service employs nearly 20 staff (both full and part-time) and 100 volunteers (comprising female lawyers, law students and social workers), who are a core part of our service delivery and who graciously give of their time and expertise each month to help women. We would also like to acknowledge the resilience and agency of our clients and recognise that their experiences and stories have informed our work, kept us grounded and given us inspiration to continue our work.

From its inception, the Service provided a broad range of advice in a number of different areas of law. However, over time it became apparent that the majority of women sought advice about their experiences of domestic violence and their family law matters. In response, and due to the need to effectively utilise finite resources, the Service moved to providing specialist advice in the areas of family law and domestic violence. We also work closely with other community legal centres and private lawyers to ensure appropriate referrals for women who require advice in areas outside of our expertise.

The environment in which Women’s Legal Service operates is always changing. However, the need for the Service does not abate. Many years on from its humble beginnings on the verandah of Women’s House, Women's Legal Service still upholds the vision and commitment to achieve justice for Queensland women, especially those who have been subject to domestic violence, sexual assault or other forms of violence against women.