WLA ACT sat down with Farzana Choudry, Solicitor and Program Manager at Street Law for #womenlawyersoftheACT. Street Law is a program of Canberra Community Law that provides free and confidential outreach legal service for people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Street Law provides legal advice and casework assistance and connects clients with other services.
How long have you been at Street Law?
So I’ve been at Street Law a little bit over two years now. Prior to joining Street Law I had done a fair bit of volunteering work while I was at university. I volunteered at a number of community legal centres and I was involved with a group called Justice Action which assists provides assistance to prisoner in NSW and I had also worked at Law Access NSW in Sydney.
I had already had a little bit of experience working with clients who were experiencing disadvantage. While I was working full time at the Department of Industry I was also volunteering with the night time legal advice service which is run by Canberra Community Law on Tuesday night. I think I’ve always been interested in human rights and social justice so that’s where I thought my career might end up. After finishing university I wasn’t sure if I would work as a lawyer or in policy so I thought government might be a good place to start because you get a little bit of all of it. I started working in the Department of Industry and felt I learnt a lot of really valuable skills about giving legal advice. I was also involved in law reform, it was nice to see how those processes worked and I think all those skills that I learnt in government were pretty transferable to working in the community sector.
I was on the board for Beryl Women Inc which is a women’s refuge. They assist women with children escaping domestic violence and that’s something that got me quite interested in the homeless sector. I’ve always had an interest in women’s issues and domestic violence as well. When the position at Street Law came up, I put my hand up for it and applied. A lot of it I think is about being in the right place at the right time.
Have you always wanted to practice in the community sector?
I’ve always wanted to help people who are experiencing disadvantage in the social justice space. I’ve always felt like I have the privilege of an education and getting a law degree. And I think it would be such a waste to not use my law degree to assist others.
Before I moved to Canberra – about five years ago now – I didn’t realise there was such an issue around homelessness in the ACT. I don’t think it is as visible as places like NSW where you’ve just got a larger population and you see a lot more people rough sleeping. I think just working at Street Law, I’ve been able to see all sorts of living situations firsthand through clients: people who are living in their cars, people living at refuges (both men’s or women’s) and people who are couch surfing as well. Couch surfing is actually very common, particularly amongst our younger clients.
What do you find most enjoyable about what you do?
Working at a community legal, the type of work you do is just so diverse. At Street Law we assist with most civil law matters and we do minor criminal law matters as well. We do a fair bit of work in the housing space, and a range of other services such as applying for a birth certificate. If you are homeless or at risk of homelessness we will pay for your Australian, New Zealand or United Kingdom birth certificate. That is quite a useful resource for people, because if you are experiencing homelessness, it is really difficult to hold onto your key documents if you are moving around all the time. If you then don’t have primary identification it is hard to get into housing, Centrelink benefits or other assistance. That is something that is quite small that is really appreciated by our clients.
The type of work we do is quite varied. In addition to giving legal advice, we do case work, we do a lot of community legal education, out to people in our client group also other community organisations. But also out and about in terms of where we are giving advice. Because Street Law is an outreach legal service, we will see drop ins but we also have a number of outreach services such as at food pantries, going out to refuges, drop in centres. We’re recently started trialling a new health justice partnership with the Junction Youth Health Centre. They are a bulk billing medical clinic for young people. I think that is quite interesting because you get a real sense of what services are out there and it is about meeting clients in places that they are comfortable. The clients might already be accessing other services so its just being as accessible as possible
At the moment with Street Law we are part of Canberra Community Law which is a broader community legal centre service we’ve got a few different programs that are targeted at different legal areas and we also have a social worker. I think a social worker is quite valuable because clients who have more complex needs can get both legal and social support for it as well. In terms of us being at the medical centre where you do have doctors, nurses, psychologists and youth workers, I don’t think it is particularly overwhelming because largely what will happen is because once a doctor or youth worker identifies someone that has a legal problem they will take them to the youth worker and have a chat to them and then if they are comfortable seeing the lawyer they will see the lawyer then. It is always up to the client / patient if they see us or not. I think just being accessible so we are there as an option is something that is helpful.
I thin social workers can be really helpful in getting a client to our appointments. We do get quite a few referrals from community workers. And we find that if they do come to the appointment we remind them about appointments. Or we can go out to the client it makes it a bit easier for them.
I don’t think we are a one stop shop but we do encourage those who are homeless or at risk to come to us or chat to us or give us a call or we will put them in touch with organisations that can help them.
If you could give one piece of advice to your first-year professional self, what would it be?
When you are starting off your legal career it can be hard to know what is out there. I think seeking out mentors early on is something that is a really valuable decision. I’ve engaged with the Women In Law Organisation (WILO) mentoring program run with WLA ACT, and the ACT Law Society Young Lawyers mentoring program. I have been a mentor with WILO and a mentee through the ACT Law Society Young Lawyers. I was very lucky as a mentee, I was paired with Heidi Yates at a time when she was working at the Women’s Legal Centre. I felt mentoring with Heidi was a really valuable experience. I was quite inspired to hear about what advocacy and law reform she had been involved in first hand, and I’ve since gone on to work with her in other ways while at Canberra Community Law and also in her current role as the Victims of Crime Commissioner. I found it a really rewarding experiencing just being able to chat to her, and particularly found it so as she was so friendly and humble.