Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Women, Legal Aid and Social Inclusion

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Women, Legal Aid and Social Inclusion

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Australian government's social inclusion agenda envisages a state in which all Australians 'feel valued and have the opportunity to participate fully in the life of our society' (www.socialinclusion.gov.au). One of the key differences between discourses of 'poverty', 'disadvantage' and 'deprivation' and those of 'social exclusion' is that the latter adopt a dynamic analysis, focusing not just on access to material resources but on 'the social relations of power and control, the processes of marginalisation and exclusion' (Hague et al. 2001: 73). Thus, social inclusion necessarily requires a shift in or reversal of these power relations and marginalisation processes.

According to the government's policy, achieving the vision of a socially inclusive society means that: all Australians will have the resources, opportunities and capability to:

* Learn, by participating in education and training

* Work, by participating in employment or voluntary work, including family and carer responsibilities

* Engage, by connecting with people, using local services and participating in local civic, cultural and recreational activities and

* Have a voice, in influencing decisions that affect them (www.socialinclusion.gov.au).

It is notable that this image of social citizenship does not include the ability to invoke and enforce legal rights. This absence of legal effectivity from social inclusion agendas is not unique to Australia (Sommerlad 2004). Yet it is clear that unresolved legal problems can both result from oppressive social relations of power and control, and contribute to experiences of marginalisation and exclusion. For example, 'legal needs' studies undertaken in the UK have found that socially excluded groups such as people with chronic illness or disability, lone parents, and welfare benefit recipients are particularly vulnerable to experiencing multiple legal problems (Pleasence et al. 2004: 31-32, 45; Pleasence et al. 2006: 54). Similarly, a study of civil and criminal law problems in six socio-economically disadvantaged areas of NSW found a high level of legal need within these communities, and a wide range of legal problems experienced in particular by Indigenous people and people with a chronic illness or disability (Coumerelos et al. 2006: xviii-xx). The UK studies argue that promoting access to justice is an important means of tackling social exclusion (Pleasence et al. 2006: 155). Indeed, the ability to invoke her legal rights is a significant avenue by which the excluded subject may be able to exercise agency, to regain control of social relationships and resist her own marginalisation. It can empower 'the vulnerable to be able to control their life circumstances and the future with some degree of success' (Ferguson 2003: 213).

The ability to exercise legal rights, however, is far from the heart of the government's current priorities under the social inclusion agenda, which include 'helping jobless families with children by helping the unemployed into sustainable employment and their children into a good start in life', 'addressing the incidence of homelessness by providing more housing and support services', 'assisting in the employment of people with disability or mental illness by creating employment opportunity and building community support', and 'closing the gap for Indigenous Australians with respect to life expectancy ... educational achievement and employment outcomes' (www.socialinclusion.gov.au). But at the same time, access to court orders and legal remedies--for example in relation to family breakdown, domestic violence or employment discrimination--may be a crucial means of helping jobless families with children achieve safe, stable post-separation living arrangements, reducing the incidence of homelessness caused by domestic violence, enhancing employment security for people with disability, and 'closing the gap for Indigenous Australians' in all of these areas. …

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