“We don’t need people like you here,” a manager at a large national cleaning company told Eric*, a transman dealing with depression and anxiety, after he requested an adjustment to is work hours from his employer. The manager then removed Eric from the roster.

Eric approached the Roberta Perkins Law Project – Victoria’s first dedicated legal service for trans and gender diverse persons – who helped him file a claim of disability discrimination at the human rights commission. The company agreed to a financial settlement with Eric, made a donation to an LGBTQI charity and undertook to conduct disability discrimination training for all its employees.

Lenani* a trans woman was charged for a family violence related offence, despite maintaining that she had acted in self defence. She had been a victim of family violence at the hands of her cis-gender male partner. Despite him making a statement of no complaint, the police refused to drop charges against Lenani. Charges were eventually withdrawn after a barrister with knowledge of LGBTQI issues appeared for Lenani on a pro-bono basis.

Since its soft launch last year and named after Roberta Perkins, a pioneering Australian sociologist, writer, transgender rights and sex worker rights activist, the initiative has provided legal aid to over 50 persons. It has handled a range of calls for help – from assisting with birth certificate changes and cases of family violence, personal safety, and discrimination at the workplace to families seeking legal support for their trans and gender diverse children

“We knew from our experience, over decades of community outreach and our learnings from the LGBTIQ Legal Service pilot project, that there was a need for a dedicated and specialist legal service for trans and gender diverse clients. We also knew from our work towards a state-wide LGBTQI legal needs analysis that the trans and gender diverse community experience particularly high rates of legal need, often stemming from greater risks this community faces in terms of discrimination, harassment and violence,” Annie Davis, Executive Officer and Principal Lawyer at St Kilda Legal Service told Star Observer.

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 The St Kilda Legal Service was set up in 1973 as a community legal centre. Its work within the community acquainted its lawyers with barriers faced by LGBTQI persons such as, discrimination, violence, lack of understanding and respect when dealing with the police, attending court or accessing legal services.

A partnership with Thorne Harbour Health in 2018 led to the establishment of the LGBTQI Legal Service – Victoria’s first and only specialist legal service for the community. Word soon got out and the service started receiving requests for legal aid from across the state. The Roberta Perkins Law Project, set up last year and officially launched in June 2020, was the next logical step.

The two year pilot project got off the ground with funding from the City of Melbourne. Limited finances and resources, however, mean that the centre is not able to cater to the requirements of the broad spectrum of needs of the community.

“Currently, we are only funded for one part time lawyer for this service, but this level of staffing is not enough for the level of need we know is out there. There are some areas of law – such as migration and family law – where our service does not have the resources or capacity to provide ongoing casework beyond initial advice, information or referrals. These cases are often long-running and require particular expertise. We would love to have more secure and substantial funding to ensure we can provide specialist family and migration law services in-house for trans and gender diverse clients,” said Davis.

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 Securing ongoing and long-term funding to support the services of the centre, engaging specialists and working with trans persons in prisons is a challenge. Sam Elkin, Lawyer and Program Coordinator, echoes the need for more funding. “Comprehensive trans and gender diverse inclusion training for all court staff, police, judiciary, lawyers and corrections staff is a key goal for the Roberta Perkins Law Project, and one that funding will help us achieve. We also strive to make changes to the Equal Opportunity Act, which will protect non-binary gender identities and intersex people, and amend corrections policies to better meet the needs of transgender and diverse prisoners” Elkin said in a press statement.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant social distancing restrictions have led to new concerns about the impact on the health and lives of trans and gender diverse persons.

“We are concerned about the health impacts of isolation and restricted access to medical treatment and other health and support services for so many members of the community during this time. From a legal and human rights perspective, we are also concerned trans and gender diverse people may be unfairly targeted by police or other authorities when enforcing social distancing,” said Davis, and asked anyone affected by it to get in touch with the centre.

* Names changed to protect identity.

For legal help you can write an email to rplp@skls.org.au or contact the service online.

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