“Justice delayed is justice denied”


Words by Matt Harvey

For more than 10 years now, 74-year-old Ian Cunliffe has been offering legal advice and services to public housing residents, but he refuses to take a cent for his work.

Carlton Housing Estate Residents Services (CHERS) houses Carlton Legal Service (CLS) as part of the Carlton Public Residents’ Association. CLS represents the residents on all a range of large and small issues.

The free legal service and assistance can relate to any of the government’s services, including:

Housing and VCAT

Police matters

Court matters

Writing effective letters

General legal help and advice



Parking issues

Appear in court on one’s behalf

After more than 10 years of running the CLS, even Mr Cunliffe is surprised to find himself as founder and director of the organisation.

“Yeah, that’s not by design, as so many others said life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans,” Mr Cunliffe said.

After having a stroke in 2009, he found himself unable to work and looking for what to do next with his life.

“I thought, why don’t I do some of the things I’ve neglected through my life, I’ve always fancied the idea of doing some woodwork,” Mr Cunliffe said.

He sought out a Men’s Shed, a community-based service provider which prioritises the wellbeing of men by helping to prevent social isolation through providing a safe, friendly and welcoming place for men to work on meaningful projects and to contribute to the wider community.

This attempt to fill his life with new direction would bring him straight back to the law as it became clear there was a need for the kind of support that Mr Cunliffe had spent his life developing the skills to provide.

“There was a need for a hand with submissions for these fronting roles as heads of the residents’ committee over there and that sort of thing morphed into helping residents around the place with some legal advice and help,” Mr Cunliffe said.

His legal history is long and storied with a career as a solicitor in private practice and as a senior federal public servant, and he has been a partner in some of Australia’s largest legal firms.

Earlier in his career Ian was successively head of the legal section of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Secretary, director of research of the Australian Law Reform Commission and chief executive of the Australian Constitutional Commission.

Mr Cunliffe recognised the need for a place that would be helpful and support a community.


The help that is needed mostly it’s just helping people who are not familiar with the systems navigate their way through those systems to the best effect and it’s sort of grown from there.


“Often things are quite unjust for these people, but they haven’t really known, as you or I would, where to turn to sort the thing out. And then they’re confronted due to language and cultural things, confronted with difficulties in sorting it out.”

Working within a community where you might not have close connections, or even speak the languages, brings its own complications.

Mr Cunliffe does not work alone. He is assisted by Carlton Men’s Shed manager and CLS co-ordinator Hamdi Ali.

“I work very closely with Hamdi and a few other people but Hamdi is so well plugged in to people from the Horn of Africa, that’s where he’s from, I’ve learned as much from him as he has from me and between us we’ve been able to help a lot of people.”

This connection with Hamdi brings a lot of clout within the community and an air of trust and authenticity as Mr Ali is well recognised by his community.

“He’s well regarded, as he should be, and he is well connected in that community. He’s got a weekly radio program on 3CR in Somali and he knows a lot of people around the place so it all works very well,” Mr Cunliffe said.

“I’m a great believer in multicultural Australia and we’ve seen over the years just wonderful people coming here as non-English speaking Italians, Greeks, or whatever it is and they’ve risen to be captains of industry and really good people.”

The work done by Mr Cunliffe with CLS is pro bono, funded entirely by Mr Cunliffe although he certainly doesn’t think of it as an inconvenience or even as an expense.

“I wouldn’t say [I’m] funding [it], there’s not a lot of money involved. Occasionally I’ve got to buy a book, occasionally I’ve got to pay for a tram ticket to go to court, or occasionally I’ve got to buy some printing paper but there’s not much cost involved,” Mr Cunliffe said.

“One of the things I enjoy about this is in big law firms you’re conscious that every hour you turn over you’ve got to bill someone $500, well here I can spend as much time as I think the job needs and there’s not that feeling that somehow you’ve got to justify the expenditure. If someone’s got a problem, you want to try and solve the problem.”

He has also found the systems he is in constant connection with, such as NDIS, Services Australia’s Robodebt and My Gov, are all in desperate need of overhaul and reconsideration.

There is a sense of isolation, disconnection, and evasion when attempting to do small simple tasks within these systems.

“Literally you’ll get a wad of 700 pages of material most of which is complete gobbledygook. Usually, it’s just computer-generated numbers that don’t mean anything … you’ll find at most a dozen pages that are relevant to anything,” Mr Cunliffe said.

“I really do believe, very strongly, that [keeping people from talking directly to government staff] is a real motivating factor not only with Centrelink but with banks and telecommunications companies and so forth, they want you off balance. They want you to not be able to pose hard questions to real people. Its deliberately putting away those things, accountability and transparency.”

If you or someone you know lives in Carlton public housing and are facing uncertainty with government services contact CLS or try the drop-in service, the drop-in is open any Monday or Friday at 11am or on Wednesdays at 11.30am •

Caption: Ian in his messy office at the Carlton housing towers.

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