By Luke Voogt
Elsie Stokie has helped thousands of disadvantaged locals in 35 years since setting up Barwon Community Legal Service.
As Victorian Law Week approaches, she shares her story with Luke Voogt.
Barwon Community Legal Service began with a humble typewriter, a photocopier, six reference books and donated furniture in a single-room central Geelong office.
But before the service even opened its doors, founding lawyer Elsie Stokie was already helping about 40 locals caught up in a roofing scam that began with an elderly woman’s complaint.
A business had approached the woman claiming her roof urgently needed $2000 of work.
“Which was a lot of money back then, and she was on an aged pension,” remembered Elsie who, 35 years on, still works at the service.
After getting a second opinion, the woman discovered the amount of work needed was closer to $200.
“She came to tell us this story, and we thought, ‘this is outrageous’,” Elsie said.
“We actually went to the [Geelong] Independent and they put it on the front page with a photo her.”
The article resulted in about 80 people phoning the service, about half of which Elsie represented.
“We realised most of them had similar situations,” she said.
“They were all told, ‘if you don’t get this work done, you’re going to have your roof collapse.’ They were targeting older people because they can’t get on their roof to have a look themselves.”
At one stage the company threatened to sue the legal service, but eventually Consumer Affairs prosecuted them for misrepresentation.
“Before we even opened, we were threatened with being sued!” Elsie said.
“A senior lawyer who I would ring for advice said, ‘you know you’re doing something right when they’re threatening to sue’.”
Elsie reckons Geelong had only a handful of female lawyers when she started.
She chose the profession after growing up in Leopold and studying at the former Morongo Girls College in Bell Post Hill.
“They weren’t doing a whole heap of career guidance in those days and I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she said.
“It wasn’t very common for women to be lawyers. A lot of girls from our school became nurses and teachers, only a few became doctors or lawyers.
“But a few of my friends were doing law and I thought, ‘that sounds interesting’.”
After studying in Melbourne, Elsie worked for a law firm in Sale dealing mostly with vehicle accidents, family law and debt.
“In those days you had to get your articles of clerkship,” she said.
“It was a bit like an apprenticeship; they would train you for a year and your pay was quite low.”
Elsie moved back to Geelong after her father died, and about the same time the state government had allocated new funding to set up Barwon Community Legal Service.
“I wanted to get a job and I was not really rapt in all this sitting around at a desk doing paperwork,” she said.
But when she discovered she could deal directly with those in need, educate others and be involved in law reform at the newly-funded service, she applied for a job.
“I thought wow, ‘this sounds really exciting’,” she said.
“Where we found things that weren’t working, we could write submissions to get the laws changed.”
With just a part-time administer helping her, and only months after becoming a lawyer, she set up the organisation and recruited other lawyers to volunteer for its after-hours service.
“It was a pretty exciting learning curve. We had a ball setting it up,” Elsie said.
“We didn’t actually have a premises at the time, but Legal Aid let us use an office and their interview and meeting rooms while we waited.
“We were doing everything as cheaply as we could because there wasn’t a great deal of money.”
The service’s office officially opened a few months later in a single-room alongside other businesses in a converted former warehouse in central Geelong.
“When we started we only had a typewriter – they were just bringing in computers,” Elsie said.
“After our first year we got our first Apple Mac, which was magic.”
The service took on 202 clients in its first year, 228 the next and 283 in the third, stretching Elsie and her colleague to capacity.
Elsie looked after the service’s finances and often took home cases to work on them, or travelled to Melbourne to research legislation due to Geelong’s limited legal libraries at the time.
“We got busier and busier – I worked to all hours for years,” she said.
They also put together an “easy-to-read” family law booklet for locals.
“Now all you have to do is Google search and there are pages and pages of information about everything, but in those days there was nothing,” Elsie said.
“We distributed about 10,000 in a few months – they went like hot cakes.”
After receiving funding for more lawyers in 1989, the service began to take on more child support cases.
Elsie remembered helping a man at risk of losing his home in the late ’90s
The man had initially agreed to pay a certain amount of child support while on a good salary, but fell ill and lost his job, relying on Centrelink for income.
The man threw letters from child support authorities in the rubbish and even refused to see Elsie, at first.
“He owed $100,000 in child support and late payment penalties, and he really shouldn’t have owed anything at all,” Elsie said.
“They will come after people’s assets if they’re owed money.
“But he just couldn’t cope with it – every time he thought about it, it was making him ill.”
Through persistence Elsie got in touch with the man and eventually obtained a court order, which ultimately allowed him to keep his home.
“He basically paid all the money that he had, about $10,000, to have the debt set aside,” she said.
On the flip side, Elsie also helped clients owed child support, including one woman whose partner was under-reporting his pay.
“She had to take out small loans or credit cards to pay for her son’s school supplies and fees, some of which she was still paying off,” she said.
“He would just make up all these things, even in court, that were untrue. It confused magistrates to no end and we had to go higher.”
The matter reached the Federal Circuit Court, where Elsie helped the woman recover about $3500 she was owed.
Over the past decade Elsie has focused primarily on elder abuse, while also obtaining family violence intervention orders to help protect women, children and occasionally men.
“We’re at Geelong court three days of the week,” she said.
The family violence cases range from verbal abuse, to drug-and-alcohol-related violence and threats to harm family members or kill pets.
Her elder abuse cases, on the other hand, tend to follow common pattern.
“There will be an ageing parent, and an adult child comes back to live with them and seems to take over,” she explained.
“They will be controlling and won’t let the family member see their friends, family or go out for activities.
“The next thing you know they’re getting them to sign their power of attorney over, or their house, or getting them to make the will more favourable to them.
“And obviously other family members get really concerned.
“It’s difficult enough if they’re of sound mind, and even more complex when they’re not.”
Barwon Community Legal Service now has 22 staff, including 11 lawyers.
The organisation has since expanded its services into other areas such as Centrelink, fines, disability support and neighbourhood disputes.
The last of these will be the topic for the service’s upcoming Victorian Law Week seminar at Rosewall Community Centre, Corio, on May 18, beginning 6pm.
Residents can meet Elsie’s lawyer colleagues from the service, Caleb Leitmanis and Peter Dickinson, and learn about the most common neighbourhood disputes, tips to resolve them and how to access free legal assistance.
In June Elsie is set to present another seminar on elder abuse, drawing on her 35 years’ experience as a lawyer.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” she said of her career.
“Generally, it’s a pleasure to meet the clients and you get a sense of satisfaction helping them out.
“You may not always be able to assist them, but you can at least explain why not.
“They appreciate that, and can move on with their lives.”