In the 1970s, Community Legal Centres were founded as a community response to the increasing lack of access to legal services and the need for lobbying for changes to the law. Recognition of women’s particular disadvantage, in terms of their access to services and the gender bias in the law, led to the establishment of the first Women’s Legal Services in Victoria (1981), New South Wales (1982), and Queensland (1984). Women’s Legal Services forged new approaches to the provision of legal services, but at the time operated quite independently from one another.
In the 1990s, issues of women’s access to justice gained a place on the political agenda. In 1994, the Australian Law Reform Commission (‘ALRC’) released three reports called Equality Before the Law, which reported on what the ALRC referred to as ‘the failure of justice for women in Australia’. These reports recognised the need for additional funding for Women’s Legal Services and Indigenous Women’s Legal Services throughout Australia. The reports recommended the establishment of the National Women’s Justice Program that would include funding for a National Network of Women’s Legal Services. Later that year, the Access to Justice Advisory Committee published Access to Justice: An Action Planning endorsing the ALRC recommendations.
In February 1995, in the wake of these reports, the National Women’s Justice Coalition was formed and began to lobby for the implementation of a National Women’s Justice Program. The founding members were all existing Women’s Legal Services, the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) and the Coalition of Participating Organisations of Women (CAPOW).
Then in May 1995, the Federal Government released the Justice Statement. This included funding to establish generalist Women’s Legal Services and Indigenous Women’s Legal services in all States and Territories.
As Women’s Legal Services began to establish themselves in each state, it became clear that a national network was needed to exchange information and work for law reform. With no funding, the Network got up and running because of the dedication of a number of workers in individual centres and support from NACLC.
In early 1996, a phone link-up (PLU) and face to face meeting were held to discuss the establishment of a national network. The National Network of Women’s Legal Services (later to become WLSA) met formally for the first time at the NACLC Conference in Melbourne in September 1996. The National Law Reform Project was established after the 1998 WLSA Network Day. The Project arose as a recognition of the need for women to have a strong, collective voice in the policy and law reform process.
From the date of the first inaugural WLSA meeting in 1996, WLSA has continued to meet face to face and through PLU’s regularly to enhance communication, share information and coordinate law reform and lobbying efforts.
The Network is extremely proud of the law reform work that has been undertaken and WLSA continues to lobby against changes to legislation that disadvantages, or is potentially unsafe for, women and children.
In September 2022, the Network decided to hire its first Executive Officer and work towards establishing WLSA as a national peak body for the 13 Women’s Legal Services that exist today.