“Social Justice and Structural Reform”
In Conversation with Joanna Fletcher (LLB(Hons) 1993)
“After 21 years of working in and around issues relating to violence against women, I still feel passionate about the work.”
I catch up with Joanna over a Teams call, after lunch on what is a busy Thursday in the office for her. Joanna completed a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) at the University of Melbourne in 1993 and is now the Executive Director of Family, Youth and Children’s Law at Victoria Legal Aid. As I launch into a series of questions about her human rights advocacy, Joanna explains that she does not tend to describe herself as working in “human rights”; instead, she frames her work as that of “social justice”. Those of us interested in the field know all too well that human rights can often mean those idealistic international conventions that are far removed from the experiences and everyday lives of Australian families. Joanna also sees human rights language as being focussed on individual rights, which can risk diverting attention from the structures in society that create injustice. Joanna prefers to use the term social justice to describe her advocacy relating to Australia’s family and child-focused domestic laws and policies. These are obviously aimed at implementing Australia’s obligations under the international conventions that are committed to protecting the rights of women and children but, in Joanna’s view, the success of these laws and policies should be measured by the extent to which they contribute to reducing structural disadvantage and exclusion.
For Joanna, social justice means substantive equality, not mere formal opportunity; it is about ensuring that everyone in society can access all of the benefits of society. It must address social structures which create greater barriers for some more than others. This understanding of social justice is foundational to Joanna’s work today.
As a student, Joanna studied Feminist Legal Theory with Professor Jenny Morgan when The Hidden Gender of Law was “still a paper handout from the library” and she wrote a 10,000-word essay on the defence of “battered women” who kill. It was here that Joanna began to think she would work at the intersection of law and social work with a focus on violence against women. However, it would be another 10 years before Joanna began working in social justice, having commenced her career at the Australian Government Solicitor (AGS). A short period working at a commercial law firm, after the AGS, left Joanna questioning whether the law really was for her, and she considered leaving the profession altogether.
Joanna made a decision then, that would prove pivotal in her social justice career: she kept her foot in the legal door by volunteering to provide free legal advice with Women’s Legal Service Victoria, a community legal centre (CLC) that focuses on issues arising from relationship breakdown and violence against women. Volunteering turned into undertaking a project with the CEO, then a paid job as a lawyer and then a policy and law reform role. It was a journey of passion and persistence. Working in policy and law reform enabled Joanna to work with senior police, magistrates, government departments and other community sector organisations to develop a more systemic approach to addressing family violence in Victoria. After 18 months working in government, Joanna found herself back at Women’s Legal Service to complete a project. She was appointed CEO in 2010, a role she held for 11 years, and in which she was able to continue her work in systemic advocacy from a formal leadership role, informed by the organisation’s direct work with clients.
Joanna joined VLA in March 2021. As Executive Director of Family, Youth and Children’s Law at VLA, Joanna works towards and advocates for structural reform, in addition to overseeing teams that support individual clients in family law, child protection and family violence matters. For Joanna, structural reform means changing systems to make them more accessible and to improve outcomes for all, particularly people experiencing some form of disadvantage. Structural reform begins by listening to, and understanding, the lived experiences of VLA’s clients to inform the issues VLA advocates for, and the way in which that advocacy is undertaken. This can include clients being directly involved in VLA’s advocacy, where this is safe and appropriate for them. It is the ability to draw upon clients’ lived experiences from VLA’s frontline work to inform the organisation’s structural reform advocacy that drives Joanna to continue working in social justice, as she has done for 21-years.
In those 21 years, Joanna has developed a deep understanding of how to achieve structural reform, and she graciously broke down some key points for me. First, “you need to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve,” informed by clients’ needs. This enables a focusing of effort on a specific goal. In addition, advocates need to be creative, use multiple different points of influence and partner with like-minded organisations. Most importantly, advocates need to persevere and continue beyond the small wins until structural reform is achieved, understanding that significant change takes time.
I ask Joanna to impart some of her wisdom for anyone who is interested in working in human rights and social justice, particularly because there is no clearly defined pathway. Joanna strongly recommends volunteering at a CLC. She observes that people do not immediately identify CLCs or Legal Aid as human rights organisations. But while they may only rarely directly utilise human rights instruments in cases they run, relevant charters and conventions remain a fundamental safeguard underlying their work. They are also the foundation of the domestic legislation that CLCs and Legal Aid use every day.
In terms of her pathway into social justice work, Joanna also credits the strong foundational legal skills she developed while working on workers’ compensation and personal injuries litigation, as an articled clerk, under a fantastic principal lawyer at AGS. The written communication and advocacy skills Joanna developed at AGS proved helpful when working in family violence, which is also litigation- and court-based. This demonstrates that students can develop transferable skills to bring into the human rights and social justice space.
After speaking with Joanna, it became evident that being passionate about human rights and social justice is key to a long and successful career in the field. As Joanna stated: “After 21 years of working in and around issues relating to violence against women, I still feel passionate about the work.”
I leave my interview with Joanna ready to jump into human rights and social justice work at my local CLC, as I am reminded that we don’t need to travel far to make a real impact in people’s lives.
Prepared by: Chelsea Doyle
MLS JD Student