Community-based Legal Assistance
Legal assistance provides access to the law for many people who would otherwise be unable to afford a lawyer to press their claims in court or assist them in other ways with legal problems. This work can be done either by lawyers on a salary employed by a government-funded agency, or by private solicitors who are paid to represent clients for particular cases.
There are a number of agencies which provide legal assistance in one form or another — the Legal Aid Commission of Tasmania, community legal centres, Environmental Defenders’ office, the Tenants’ Union, the Women’s Legal Service, and the Aboriginal Legal Service. At first glance, the legal aid system seems very complicated. However, each of these agencies is aware of the services offered by the others and can readily refer people to the right place when contacted. The services provided by each of these agencies are described here.
Many people who come into contact with the law will feel out of their depth. Lawyers are a means of contact with the law so that people can feel that they are not lost in the difficult language and complicated processes of the law. This is why lawyers have obligations on them to communicate with their clients – their special knowledge and expertise creates a relationship between lawyer and client that requires the lawyer to act responsibly and openly with their client.
Lawyers fulfil a number of roles in society. Television programs often depict them as defenders of people’s rights in courts, but they play many other roles. The majority of lawyers work in private practice either as ‘partners’ or employees in legal firms. (A partner is a lawyer who has an ownership stake in the firm). These firms vary from small or one lawyer practices dealing with a range of ordinary legal matters to huge commercial law firms with branches in a number of cities and even overseas.
Representing people in court is only part of a lawyer’s work, and some may never represent a person in court. Other aspects of a lawyer’s work include:
- negotiating with other lawyers to resolve disputes
- drawing up agreements and other documents, such as completing business transactions such as loans and homes and assets purchases and sales
- generally giving advice as to what can and can’t be done legally
- the pros and cons of differing ways of dealing with legal problems.
Lawyers who engage mainly in this kind of non-court work are traditionally known as ‘solicitors’. Lawyers who specialise in court work are known as ‘barristers’, though another important part of a barrister’s work is giving opinions on the law and drafting court documents. The convention is that barristers are usually ‘briefed’ by solicitors instead of directly by clients themselves. All lawyers in Tasmania are admitted as both ‘barristers and solicitors’, though some specialise as barristers.
Lawyers fulfil many different functions in government at both state and Commonwealth level. They represent the government in court, most often as prosecutors, and work as government solicitors. They also work as judges and magistrates, members of tribunals, boards and commissions, administrators in the public service and in local government, especially in the planning area. They work in Legal Aid Commissions and community legal centres to try and ensure that the bulk of the population who cannot afford to pay for the services of private lawyers can have access to legal services. Lawyers also work ‘in-house’ in banks, insurance, the media and large corporations, and some enter politics.
Most lawyers, no matter where they work, will end up specialising in a particular branch of law, for example, the practice, or enforcement, or teaching, of taxation law. Within the ranks of lawyers practising in the courts there are specialists in many different fields, such as criminal law, family law, or personal injury law. These lawyers (or barristers) may be experts in a particular field but totally unfamiliar with an area within which they do not practise. This is why it is important to access services such as the Law Society of Tasmania’s ‘Find a Lawyer’ to find the right lawyer or firm, or community legal service for your legal problem.
Page last updated 27/02/2022