A joint project by Herbert Smith Freehills, Mission Australia and The Salvation Army have been offering free legal services to vulnerable young people since 1993. JANE SOUTHWARD meets the team behind The Shopfront and finds out how they cope with some of the most tragic stories lawyers will hear.
It’s a classy-looking terrace house, coffee in colour with a bright red door and just up from St Vincent’s Hospital on Victoria Street in Sydney’s Darlinghurst. Across the road are an upmarket florist, a gelato bar and a youth drop-in centre, all part of the eclectic mix of businesses near Kings Cross.
Once through the door, the seriousness of the business inside becomes obvious. The terrace is home to The Shopfront Youth Legal Centre. The foyer is packed with brochures that would shock people not used to working with troubled young people. The Australian Drug Foundation explains that one in 50 Australians aged over 14 used amphetamines in the past year. A red, yellow and black brochure Me and the Police for Under 18s covers legal rights for minors, and other resources cover refuges, homelessness, medical care and rights in court.
Jane Sanders is almost unshockable. As the Principal Solicitor at The Shopfront, she has seen it all. Her team of nine last year took on 509 new legal matters involving 187 new clients. Of these, 65 per cent were criminal matters and half involved court appearances. One of the most common was what she calls “the trifecta” of offensive language, resist police and assault police.
“Most of our clients have very little family support and nearly all are homeless,” Sanders explains.
“For various reasons, Legal Aid is not always an option. They have a bundle of legal issues that don’t always fit into neat categories. Many clients have major issues with trust; they need time to build up rapport with a lawyer and they need continuity. Our clients also need a holistic approach, which means we often work in partnership with Legal Aid, community legal centres and the Aboriginal Legal Service, and a range of non-legal services.
“Many clients have had experience in the criminal justice system many times before, but it doesn’t mean they understand it. Being able to advocate for disadvantaged young people and help people unlock a system otherwise totally impenetrable is really satisfying.”
The Shopfront was set up by then Freehill Hollingdale and Page, now Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), and Sydney City Mission (now Mission Australia) as a practical response to the alarming findings of a 1989 report into youth homelessness by the nation’s first Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner, Brian Burdekin. Burdekin’s report found, among other things, that the human rights of individuals were “routinely ignored and seriously violated”. This included their access to justice.
HSF has made a long-term commitment to The Shopfront, funding the salaries of three permanent lawyers, three support staff and another solicitor position as a six-month secondment. Other lawyers from the firm assist The Shopfront with Local Court appearances and victim’s compensation matters. Mission Australia funds two social workers, cars and overheads, and The Salvation Army supplies the premises.
“It’s not difficult to see the interconnection between family breakdown, family violence, substance issues, mental health issues and the interaction with the criminal justice system,” says Brooke Massender, Head of Pro Bono & Citizenship, Australia & Asia, at HSF.
“There was a sense that, as lawyers, we have a part to play and that it was a part of our professional responsibility.”
The Shopfront had been running for seven years when Massender joined HSF in 2000 as a disputes lawyer. She was keen to do the pro bono secondment and, such was the competition for the experience in advocacy, she applied three times before being accepted in 2005 for a six-month placement.
Massender says she used the circumstances of the clients as “a motivating factor”. “I used to tell myself that, relatively inexperienced as I was, if I wasn’t here this person would be literally on their own,” she says. “You can’t save the world but you can make a difference one case at a time.
“A lot of clients I saw were at a crossroads. You could see how getting a criminal conviction could send them on a certain path and not having a conviction recorded because their circumstances were properly taken into account could actually send them back on a more healthy path.
“You can’t win them all, but you can feel like you have made a difference. After my secondment, I went back to the firm convinced we could be doing more. A few years later I moved into the pro bono team and in 2015 was appointed to head up that practice for Australia and Asia.”
Massender describes The Shopfront as “a jewel in the pro bono crown” for HSF.
“There is no question that our involvement in pro bono is of increasing interest to our recruits and to our corporate clients,” she says. “We are very conscious that our clients are asking about this in their tenders. They are really looking closely at this.”
I used to tell myself that, relatively inexperienced as I was, if I wasn’t here this person would be literally on their own. You can’t save the world but you can make a difference one case at a time.
BROOKE MASSENDER, Head of Pro Bono & Citizenship, Australia & Asia, at HSF
Jane Sanders, the daughter of a teacher and an engineer, grew up in Perth and studied law in Western Australia and at the University of NSW. She moved to London for a couple of years and worked as a paralegal for a law firm while volunteering in the evening on a women’s helpline and at an immigration law service.
So, it made sense that when she moved back to Sydney in 1992 to take up a graduate position at what is now HSF, a partner identified she would be a strong candidate for the second six-month secondment to the firm’s innovative new pro bono program, The Shopfront.
For Sanders, the experience was a turning point and she didn’t return to the firm. Since then she has overseen the team of two staff grow to nine, including solicitors, social workers and a number of volunteers, some studying law, others social sciences.
The Shopfront team has found that an increasing proportion of matters (about two-thirds) involve repeat clients. Sanders says this reflects that many clients have increasingly complex needs and often are dealing with multiple legal issues. Homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse and intellectual disability are common.
Asked if things have improved since 1993, Sanders gives a blunt reply: “Homelessness is definitely getting worse, much worse. Things are getting better in terms of public awareness about homelessness but that doesn’t necessarily translate into action, particularly in government.
“Retrogressive legislation has been passed in the past 20 years: the number of people in prison in NSW is going up and up, we’ve seen the police getting more and more power and the police ministry has a lot more power in government. In that sense, things are worse.”
Still, the team including Senior Associate Jane Irwin, who started at The Shopfront in 2000 after working at the Aboriginal Legal Service then in children’s services at the Marrickville Legal Centre, manages to be optimistic.
Apart from representing clients and offering advice, the team pushes for law reform and writes submissions to government.
“There is always, always hope,” Irwin says. “Young people with these really complex problems … there’s not any quick fix overnight or even in 12 months. Often it is a long process.
“There’s something really good about hanging in there with them and continuing to provide them with that continuity and legal support.
“I really feel that you eventually see change and you are helping in that change process.”
Irwin says the most significant change in her 15 years at The Shopfront has been the addition of two social workers to the team.
“Usually clients have pressing concerns that underpin their offending,” Irwin says. “That might be homelessness, offences of poverty such as stealing handbags, public disorder, drug and substance abuse co-existing with mental health issues or issues of trauma.
“Before the social workers, I felt a lot of my time was spent being a social worker as well as a lawyer and that was really difficult, particularly when we were in court.
“Often these young people are so vulnerable they need social work support in court while you are at the bar table. There’s something extremely reassuring about having one of the social workers supporting people.”
But how does the team deal with the stress of clients who keep getting into trouble?
“It’s not unrewarding,” Irwin says. “It’s sometimes frustrating, disappointing, and makes you feel sad but my experience is that if you keep hanging in there and providing the legal support and social work support that eventually you will have positive outcomes.”
Solicitor Jacki Maxton, has about 60 victim’s compensation cases on the go for clients at The Shopfront. Maxton opted out of a promising career at HSF to care for three children under five. She soon found she was missing working in the law, so started volunteering at The Shopfront in 2004. Six years later, she took on a paid part-time role.
Maxton helps clients claim for compensation through Victims Services in the Department of Justice.
“Some say no one has ever believed them before. What I do is provide a voice for them,” Maxton says.
“Often it’s the first time someone has not only listened to them but been a voice for them and taken their case to the government. “Often their parents haven’t believed them and have let them down. Compensation means we believe you, this shouldn’t have happened, and here’s some money to compensate you.
“It’s especially important for clients at The Shopfront because most have suffered a lot of rejection and abandonment in their lives.
“I always say to clients that the good thing about victims’ compensation is you don’t have to go into a box and be cross-examined and you don’t have to face the abuser.
“The bad thing about it is paedophiles don’t leave nice neat notes saying I abused A or B on this date, so it involves a forensic expedition to get as many documents from as many sources as possible to build up a case to say to victim services, ‘My client says they were sexually abused by this person and here is all the evidence’.”
She says it saddens her that they are probable seeing only the survivors, the strong ones.
“Abuse is so prevalent. What astounds me is how many adults have come in contact with these kids and either not known or not helped.
“If you want young people to move on and to take their place in society, I think they need to know that they have been heard and that their legal rights have been respected.
“I can’t think of a time when I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I always wanted to advocate and have always been interested in justice and human rights.”
When we meet opposite the Downing Centre, Sanders is on the phone frantically trying to get a social worker to Burwood Local Court for a bail hearing for a long-term client, originally from Africa, who was picked up the night before on warrants for failing to appear in court.
Police had called Sanders the previous evening but the line kept dropping out. Ten hours later she is trying to find a Legal Aid solicitor for him as she is due to appear in the Downing Centre for a young woman facing disqualification for driving without a licence, a common case for clients of The Shopfront.
“I didn’t know he was meant to appear at court and it seems neither did he,” Sanders says of the client who spent the night in the cells under Burwood Local Court. “This young man has had a lot of interactions with the police and has ended up with quite a few charges as a result. He feels targeted by the police, and no doubt there’s an element of racism from the police or at least unconscious bias.”
Asked how she deals with the frustration of clients with complex needs who fail to communicate well, turn up to court or complete court-ordered programs. Sanders says matter of factly: “Our clients wouldn’t be our clients if they didn’t have issues, so I guess it’s just part of the job. But sometimes we do get really frustrated because those issues, whatever they are, get in the way of us assisting them. If they will not turn up to court, will not return our calls, will not engage in any way, how do we help?”
When it comes to young, disadvantaged people and the courts, their cases involve issues ranging from trivial to serious and often what The Shopfront team describes as “offences relating to poverty such as railway infringements and survival crimes such as shoplifting” and “street offences resulting from interactions with police such as the trifecta of offensive language, resist police and assault police”.
One issue the team wants changed is more flexibility and discretion available to magistrates when it comes to the disqualification of driver’s licences. After all, when you are living in a refuge with little family support, it can be impossible to complete the 120 hours of supervised driving required to get a licence in NSW, she says.
In a submission to the NSW Parliament’s Committee on Law and Safety in 2013, The Shopfront said driver’s licence disqualifications were one of the most significant systemic issues affecting their clients.
“Our vulnerable young clients face significant barriers when it comes to obtaining and keeping a driver’s licence,” the submission said. “When faced with excessively long disqualification periods, it is common for our people to abandon hope of ever getting a licence . . . They will often drive unlicensed, sometimes out of necessity for employment or family reasons or due to the impulsiveness that accompanies adolescence.”
The Shopfront has called for the abolition of cumulative disqualifications and Habitual Traffic Offender declarations and for greater discretion for magistrates over disqualification periods.
“The prospect of getting their licence back after two years (as opposed to five or 20 or 40 years) would act as a reason not to abandon all hope of getting a licence, and an incentive to maintain good behaviour,” the submission says.
Sanders says they are still waiting for law reform on these issues.
MEET THE SHOPFRONT CLIENTS
The Shopfront describes the cases of two long-term clients.
Abdou, now aged 23, came to Australia as a refugee from Sierra Leone in his early teens, accompanied by his father and stepmother.
The Shopfront has worked with him for about five years, in partnership with legal and other services including Legal Aid, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Mission Australia’s The Crossing youth service.
During his teens, Abdou engaged in what most people would regard as fairly typical teenage behaviour. Abdou’s father, who is a strict disciplinarian, found this difficult and they often argued. Abdou was sent to live with family friends but was kicked out after developing a romantic relationship with the daughter of the household.
Abdou was referred to The Shopfront when he was living in a refuge. Initially he sought help for fairly minor criminal charges. Although we did not know it at the time, he was developing a serious mental illness and was using drugs, mainly cannabis.
He got in touch with The Shopfront again in 2013 after he had been charged with more serious offences. After a brief period in custody, he was released and moved into community housing organised by Anglicare. It was at this time that his mental health problems were identified, although he did not have a clear diagnosis and was not placed on medication. His mental state deteriorated to the point where he was psychotic.
One night he had an argument with a neighbour and stabbed him with scissors.
Abdou was arrested and charged with “wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm”. He was refused bail and was unable to give us coherent instructions about his case. We arranged for him to see a psychiatrist.
After a year in custody, and on anti-psychotic medication, Abdou’s mental health improved to the point where he was fit to be tried. He pleaded guilty to a charge of “reckless wounding” and was released on parole soon afterwards. Abdou has not re-offended but his parole was revoked for “failure to adapt to normal lawful community life” largely due to his complex mental health problems.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection cancelled his permanent resident visa on “character grounds”. He had 28 days to challenge this decision.
Due to funding constraints, Legal Aid was unable to assist him so The Shopfront sought advice from specialist immigration lawyers to prepare an urgent submission about why he should not be returned to Sierra Leone. Months on, Abdou is awaiting a decision and in an immigration detention centre.
Vicky is her late 20s and has been a client of The Shopfront since she was 18.
During her early teens she started to experience difficulties at school and at home and was diagnosed with a range of developmental and behavioural disorders. These problems, combined with inadequate parenting, led to Vicky leaving home in her mid-teens.
Although Vicky was referred to the Department of Community Services, they were unable to find her a stable placement and she was homeless for three years. During this period she incurred thousands of dollars of fines, mainly for travelling on trains without a ticket. She was charged with offences including shoplifting and fraud.
With the help of a government-funded after-care service, Vicky found stable housing when she was 19. This was a significant step forward but her problems were far from over. Vicky’s unpaid fines prevented her from getting a driver’s licence. As an impulsive young woman with mental health problems and a love of cars, Vicky continued to drive without a licence and soon found herself facing harsh consequences. She spent her 21st birthday in prison for driving while disqualified. She was also disqualified from driving until she is well into her 40s.
At 23, Vicky gave birth to a daughter, Leyla. Although Vicky was a devoted mother and initially seemed to be coping well, Leyla was removed from her care at six months after being exposed to violence from Vicky’s former partner.
Over the next two years, Vicky worked hard to prove that she could be trusted to protect her daughter. With the help of her case worker from The Shopfront, she completed parenting courses, was referred to a family support service, and moved to a house that was close to her support networks but far away from her former partner. The Shopfront, assisted by a barrister funded by Legal Aid, acted for Vicky in the Children’s Court care proceedings. The magistrate decided that Leyla should be restored to her care. This was an extraordinary result that would not have been possible without the support network that we helped pull together.
The Shopfront then helped Vicky to work through a range of other unresolved legal issues, so she was able to move forward with her life and provide the best care for Leyla. These included applying for remission of her licence disqualifications, linking her with a financial counsellor to get her fines and debts under control, referring her to a tenancy service to ensure that her landlord carried out essential maintenance, making a change-of-name application (at 18 she had changed her surname to distance herself from her family; having reconciled with her parents, she wanted to acknowledge this by going back to her original family name), and obtaining compensation following an unlawful arrest.
Vicky is now raising Leyla, who is in primary school. Vicky coaches Leyla’s soccer team, is studying at TAFE while looking for part-time work, and has finally got her driver’s licence.