Lawyer loves doing the rights thing

Genevieve Bolton

Canberra Community Law’s Genevieve Bolton… “A career in private practice was not for me!” Photo by Andrew Finch

GENEVIEVE Bolton has dedicated her 20-year legal career to helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Through her work as co-ordinator and principal solicitor of Canberra Community Law, she was recently awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2015 Law Award.

“From an early age I was interested in a profession that affects change and assists people from disadvantaged backgrounds,” says Genevieve.

“My parents’ marriage broke down when I was young, and my mum found herself in a situation where she was the sole carer of three kids.

“Because of my family’s experience I had a strong appreciation for the value of education and pursuing opportunities, but I also had a clear understanding of the hardships and struggles that arose from being a sole parent on a limited income.”

Inspired by a family member who was a lawyer, Genevieve was completing a law degree at Queensland University of Technology when she took a volunteer position at a community law centre in Melbourne. Working in the refugee service, Genevieve says she knew this was the type of legal practice she wanted to do.

In 2003, she joined Canberra Community Law, which provides free legal services to disadvantaged and vulnerable people in matters including housing law, social security law, disability discrimination law, and also runs outreach services such as Street Law and the Night Time Legal Advice Service. It celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

“Canberra Community Law is a grassroots-style organisation that emphasises early intervention through education about rights and obligations to reach people at the early stages of legal matters to avoid complex legal processes,” she says.

“Two years ago we launched a pilot program for a social worker to join our team, to provide a multidisciplinary model that recognises that our clients benefit from extra social support.”

Genevieve was instrumental in setting up the ACT’s Pro Bono Clearing House that connects people who have matters of public interest to pro bono legal assistance where they are not able to afford a private lawyer or access other free legal services. In the last 10 years, more than 300 cases were able to be referred for free legal assistance.

In 2010, Genevieve helped launch Canberra Community Law’s outreach service, Street Law, which sends lawyers into the community to assist those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

2015 Law Award

Genevieve Bolton’s Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2015 Law Award.

She hopes it will help show others the connection between law and the promotion and protection of human rights.

More recently the centre, under Genevieve’s leadership, has adopted a human rights litigation strategy, becoming the first legal body to regularly utilise the Human Rights Act in routine legal actions. This strategy has led to a number of successful outcomes in their test cases and these judgements have led to the development of human rights case law in the ACT. The matters have spanned across ACT courts and tribunals, including the Supreme Court.

Genevieve says she was in shock when she received the award that recognises those working in the legal sector who have advanced human rights in Australia.

“There is a key and fundamental connection with human rights and community law and how it helps vulnerable people,” she says.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to have fallen into the sector through luck and found my place. A career in private practice was not for me!”

In July next year the centre faces a 30 per cent cut to its federal funding. With 13 staff, and a very low administrative component, Genevieve says that the team is constantly juggling resources and operates within a tight budget. Last year, it provided 1609 advices and worked on 214 cases.

Genevieve hopes that highlighting the importance of their work will help to create a national push to reverse the cuts.

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