An Australian Initiative Tested by Essex Vegetables

JusticeConnect is a feisty Australian legal NGO that has come up with a number of interesting technological innovations in the access to justice field. This month, it has announced a Not-for-Profit Rules Tool which, for both personal and professional reasons, has got me rather excited. This is because I mix an interest in technology with growing vegetables in an allotment or community garden just outside London. A number of issues are currently rather testing my allotment association’s rudimentary constitution: this gives the perfect domestic opportunity to test the Australian product.

The tool is ‘designed to help Victorian incorporated associations draft their constitution quickly and easily. Our free web app solves the problem many associations face in needing legal help to draft their own rules.’ It is, of course, specific to its jurisdiction and it produces rules for approval by the appropriate Victorian body – Consumer Affairs Victoria. ‘Using a conversational interface, the Rules Tool mimics an educational conversation with a lawyer by asking you a series of questions about how you would like their association to operate. Once you’ve answered its questions, it will generate a customised document.’

Forgive me, JusticeConnect. I inputted my correct name; an email address that did not reveal my non-Australian location; and we were away. After about a quarter of an hour, I had downloaded the draft constitution of a body named Canvey Gardens whose purpose was to provide community gardens. We have a financial year starting on 1 January and the usual arrangements for a governing committee, members and officers. 

The draft presumably meets the requirements of Community Affairs Victoria. I would have one or two nit-picky criticisms but it looks serviceable to me. It will be interesting to see how the product develops. I can see that there might be advantages in recognising the very different circumstances of not for profit organisations. My allotment association runs a shop; takes in rents; pays rent to the council; and has a small but significant turnover. So, it needs a certain formality in the handling of money. We have members who really should have an indemnity from the association for risks that they take on its behalf such as signing the lease with the council. A relatively small sports club would not need the same level of concern over finances. Specialist associations might need specialist consideration. For example, a campaigning group might want rules about who can speak on its behalf.

But the detail is not the point. Small community groups often only identify their need for some form of constitution at a point of crisis. The treasurer runs off with the funds. The chair won’t call a meeting or stand down after rather too long in office. There will be many organisations which would benefit from a constitution but would be unwilling to go to a lawyer – for reasons of cost if not otherwise. You can get precedents in most jurisdictions out of books or online but an individually tailored draft is likely to be so much better. 

The tool does not just draft the rules. It also gives guidance on why you need them. It could probably add a bit more on that. And, in English practice, you might benefit from an initial decision tree guiding you on whether you should register as a charity – which has both advantages and disadvantages. You could throw in a checklist on dealing with bank accounts and levels of financial supervision appropriate for different organisations. Indeed, there might be other checklists that would be handy. Admittedly, this sort of assistance is already usually available somewhere. In the UK, for example, you can get guidance from the Resource Centre. There are also a range of sample constitutions. The government itself provides model templates and guidance for establishing a charity. But, the JusticeConnect model allows general information to be tailored more easily to particular circumstances right at the point where it impacts on the drafting of the constitutional document.

So, we should commend JusticeConnect for putting something on the table which should not only help its home Victorian constituents with its detail but will hopefully inspire others like me, far away and over several seas, with its example. Personally, I have tried to separate my interest in vegetables from that in access to justice. So, I won’t be volunteering to draft my association’s constitution. But, if I were, this kind of tool would be extremely handy. Meanwhile, it is back to the autumn dig. And some overdue weeding.

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