Dignity, respect the core tenets of client advocacy
The Shopfront Legal Centre
(Words by Jerome Doraisamy, photograph by David Field)
Jane Sanders became a juvenile criminal advocate almost by accident.
Having started as a graduate lawyer at the firm now known as Herbert Smith Freehills, a secondment opportunity arose with a community legal centre that the firm had just started up in conjunction with Sydney City Mission: Shopfront Legal Centre.
The partner she was working for asked if she was interested in applying, and despite feeling as though she didn’t have the experience – “I would have been out there on my own, representing people in a court of law that I really knew nothing about” – she applied and got the job.
“It was a case of being in the right place at the right time,” she mused, and it’s a role from which she’s never looked back.
When I caught up with Jane for breakfast a few weeks ago, I was struck by the phone calls she had to field in anticipation of a court appearance that morning. It was not rude or disconcerting in the slightest; rather, it was an eye-opening insight into the daily grind of advocacy, and how being in court almost every day defending clients is not just a job, but a lifestyle.
“I appear in court pretty much every day. Local court, district court, children’s court, and I appear on criminal matters for young homeless people who have been charged with a range of criminal offenses, from offensive language to dangerous driving occasioning death,” she explained.
“Appearing in court today, I have three sentencing matters, tomorrow I’ve got to appear on a possessed prohibited drug charge. We do a lot of matters based on issues like illegal search, so I’ll be applying to exclude evidence.”
Jane has become a specialist in the area of police powers, which she notes helps keep the actions of law enforcement officers in check, and protects vulnerable persons from any potential abuses of power.
She does this, together with advocacy for clients in other areas, because the clients that come to her at Shopfront Legal Centre are among the most powerless people in society, she says, including the underemployed or unemployed, homeless, juveniles who have suffered family trauma and neglect, physical or sexual abuse, have drug or alcohol problems, and those who may have come from conflict zones or suffer racism.
“Using my skills and my influence, whatever advocacy I have to help give them a voice and remedy injustice is paramount. It’s why I’m so interested in police powers, because we can keep state powers in check.”
Being able to help such vulnerable young people has helped shape her worldview of the experience of different demographics as well.
“They [young people] cop so much shit, especially from my generation, saying they’re so entitled, and so I always want to jump into conversations and give an alternative view and talk about the young people I know and what my experience is,” she noted.
That fierce passion for her clients – not just in court, but outside of it – shows through in my conversation with her, as she recounts stories about former clients and where they are now.
“My whole life is very aligned with what I do at work, which is why I’ve managed to stay in this job for so many years,” she explained.
This passion helps her see the bigger picture about the clients and their future prospects; even if she were to lose a case, the support provided may see a client avoid further trouble, or even keep them alive.
I asked her how she manages to keep going with such emotionally draining work, and how she manages to deal with any hardships or setbacks.
“We treat them in a way where they feel like they have a voice, are treated with dignity and respect, and ensure the court system treats them with respect, by putting their story and perspective to the court and representing them, saying where they’re coming from and not just saying they’re violent thugs who snatch handbags.”
Such an attitude, she concludes, helps advocates put things into perspective. While systemic change to policy and legislation comes slowly, and doesn’t change the world overnight, Jane is able to change the world of her clients through her guidance and assistance.
Copyright Doraisamy and Field 2016-2017