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Chapter 10 Section F: Finding legal help

10F.1: Types of Legal Help

Australian lawyers are either solicitors or barristers. Barristers mainly appear as advocates in Court with a solicitor ‘briefing’ them (providing information and instructions to). To get initial advice or to start a legal action, you should approach a solicitor first. In limited situations a barrister may be willing to accept your case directly.

Solicitors work:

There are different types of legal services available in NSW, depending on your needs as a client.

Initially, you may just want some legal information or advice, to find out your options and possible outcomes from these options. You may be able to take action yourself based on this information.

Once you decide on the outcome you are seeking and how the solicitor can help you, then the solicitor may need to take further action. This may be, for example, advising you about your legal rights, and if your claim is worth pursuing, writing a letter on your behalf, or arranging for an expert report.

If you decide to take legal action in the courts or decide you need a lawyer to defend you in existing legal action in a court, the lawyer may need to prepare documents and officially ask for relevant documents from other people or organisations through the court system (using a document called a subpoena). A lawyer may also need more detailed information from you at this stage, in order to complete these tasks.

The solicitor may represent you in court or you might decide to have the solicitor instruct a barrister to speak in your matter in the courtroom.

For information about who pays for legal services, click here.

10F.2: Who pays for legal services?

Lawyers from Legal Aid NSW can provide you with legal services for free if your matter falls within their policies. This will depend on your type of matter, your circumstances, and other factors. To read these policies, click here.

Legal Aid NSW can also pay for a private lawyer to help you through a grant of legal aid. A grant of legal aid is not always made without any cost to the client. Legal Aid NSW usually asks for an initial contribution, and this contribution will be based on your income and assets at the time legal aid is granted.

Community Legal Centres do not usually charge for their services, but sometimes they are paid by Legal Aid NSW to represent you in your legal case, and in such cases, Legal Aid NSW’s contribution requirements can apply.

Generally, private lawyers charge their clients for their services. There is regulation of solicitors’ fees in NSW and you can complain to the Legal Services Commission if you think you have been overcharged.

Click here to go to the Legal Services Commission website for more information.

However, the services private lawyers provide sometimes come at no charge or a reduced charge. This could be because:

Click here for information about where to go if you can’t afford to pay for legal services.

10F.3: Where to go if you can’t afford to pay for legal services

There are four main ways that legal help is available for no or reduced cost:

In NSW, there are both generalist legal assistance providers, that is, organisations that provide legal assistance to a local community, and specialist legal assistance providers. There are several specialists that deal with disability rights issues, including legal issues affecting people with mental illness.

It is often best to contact LawAccess NSW first to find out which service is most appropriate for you.

10F.4: LawAccess NSW

For information about your legal rights and to find out where to get legal help, call LawAccess NSW on 1300 888 529* from 9:00am to 5:00pm, Monday to Friday.

LawAccess NSW is a free telephone service that provides legal information, referrals and advice for people who have a legal problem in NSW.

LawAccess NSW can help you with a wide range of legal problems or questions, including:

  • going to court
  • a crime
  • a fine or traffic offence;
  • a debt
  • your family or relationship
  • domestic or family violence
  • a dispute with your neighbour
  • a problem at work
  • buying goods and services
  • a motor vehicle accident; and
  • planning ahead documents (wills, Powers of Attorney, Guardianship).

LawAccess NSW can help by giving you legal information over the phone, sending you information, and giving you the contact details for appropriate legal service providers and other related services. In some cases, LawAccess NSW can give you legal advice over the phone.

LawAccess NSW also has information about many kinds of legal problems available on its website. The website has detailed guides to help you to represent yourself in court or tribunal.

If you are deaf, hard of hearing or having a speech impairment, you can contact LawAccess NSW through the National Relay Service. Ask for Law Access NSW on 1300 889 529*

*Mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) and to local call numbers (numbers starting with 13 or 1300) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.

10F.5: Legal Aid NSW

There are different ways in which Legal Aid NSW may be able to help by:

  • providing you with information through their website
  • providing you initial free legal information, advice or minor assistance
  • providing you with legal representation from a Legal Aid NSW lawyer; and/or
  • granting you legal aid, to pay a private lawyer or a Community Legal Centre (CLC) lawyer to represent you.

You can get initial free legal advice from Legal Aid NSW by ringing and making an appointment to see a lawyer in one of the Legal Aid NSW offices. To find a Legal Aid NSW advice service near you, click here.

Legal Aid NSW can assist with you with criminal law matters, family law matters and civil law matters. Click here for information about the full range of matters Legal Aid NSW assists with.

If you want further help from Legal Aid NSW, for example if you want them to send a letter on your behalf, you will have to make an application for a grant of legal aid. You can also make an application for a grant of legal aid to pay for a private lawyer to represent you or, in some cases, if you are being represented by a Community Legal Centre. To apply for a grant of legal aid, click here.

Representation by a Legal Aid NSW lawyer and a grant of legal aid are both usually subject to a means test, an assets test and sometimes a merits test (reasonable prospects for success). All the legal aid policies and guidelines are on the Legal Aid NSW website.

There is an internal review process if your application for legal aid is not granted and you want to challenge the decision. For more information about this process, click here.

10F.6: Specialist legal service providers

In NSW, there are several legal assistance providers that specialise in assisting people with disability including mental illness:

10F.6.1: The Mental Health Advocacy Service

The Mental Health Advocacy Service (MHAS) is part of Legal Aid NSW and provides advice on all aspects of mental health law in NSW.

The MHAS provides free legal representation to patients in mental health inquiries held by the Mental Health Review Tribunal under the Mental Health Act 2007 (NSW) and the Mental Health and Cognitive Impairment Forensic Provisions Act 2020 (NSW).

The MHAS employs a social worker and Lay Advocate, who can also give you advice on non-legal matters and advocate on your behalf in some circumstances.

Lawyers from the MHAS act on your instructions (that is, what you tell them you want in relation to your treatment and care, etc). The MHAS can, for example, help you to challenge involuntary treatment or financial management orders sought by a hospital, the Authorised Medical Officer or social worker at a public mental health facility.

MHAS provides free legal representation in hearings before the Mental Health Review Tribunal in these circumstances:

  • mental health inquiries after hospital admission
  • applications for a financial management order under the Trustee and Guardian Act 2009 (NSW)
  • reviews where you have been detained after a breach of a Community Treatment Order
  • applications for a Community Treatment Order, if you are detained in a mental health facility and you have specifically asked for representation for the hearing
  • applications for Electroconvulsive Therapy
  • all hearings where the consumer is under sixteen (16) years of age; and
  • all hearings before the Tribunal concerning forensic patients.

There are some circumstances where the MHAS will consider whether you can afford to pay for a lawyer (‘means test’) or whether you have a strong case with reasonable prospects of success (‘merit test’) before helping you. These are the circumstances:

  • appeals against an Authorised Medical Officer’s refusal to discharge
  • appeals to the Tribunal including against detention or a Community Treatment Order
  • applications for first time Community Treatment Orders if you are in the community
  • applications for renewals of a Community Treatment Orders if you live in the community; and
  • applications to ‘revoke’ (cancel) a Financial Management Order.

The MHAS does not generally represent consumers in the following matters:

  • reviews of voluntary patient orders; and
  • ongoing reviews of Involuntary Patient Orders after the first twelve (12) months of detention.

The MHAS also provides representation on request to people who are the subject of applications before the Guardianship Division of the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT). NCAT must first either agree for the person to have a lawyer (‘grant leave’) or NCAT can ask for a lawyer to act as a ‘separate representative’.

For more information about legal proceedings under the Mental Health Act 2007 (NSW), click here.

You can contact the MHAS by calling (02) 9745 4277 from 9:00am to 5:00pm, Monday to Friday, or visit the MHAS webpage.

10F.6.2: Australian Centre for Disability Law (ACDL)

The Australian Centre for Disability Law (ACDL) is a Community Legal Centre that provides free legal advice, and sometimes legal representation, to people with disability. They specialise in assisting people who are discriminated against because of their disability.

ACDL also provides advice to clients with human rights law issues, reviews and appeals with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, clients with Guardianship and Public Trustee matters, problems with housing and debt and/or issues with disability service providers.

ACDL also provides referrals to other services, delivers Community Legal Education, and policy and law reform.

To read about ACDL Services, click here.

For information on the right to equality and discrimination laws, click here.

You can get legal advice by phone from the ACDL on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm.

Freecall: 1800 800 708*
Freecall TTY: 1800 644 419*
Fax: (02) 9370 3131
Postal address: PO Box 989

*Mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.

10F.6.3: Intellectual Disability Rights Service

The Intellectual Disability Rights Service (IDRS) is an organisation that provides services to people with a cognitive impairment, which includes people with an intellectual disability, borderline intellectual functioning, acquired brain injury, dementia, autism spectrum disorder and drug or alcohol-related brain damage.

The Ability Rights Centre which is part of IDRS provides free legal advice and information for people with an intellectual disability or others acting on their behalf within NSW.

Lawyers provide free legal advice, casework and professional consultation across a number of areas of law, including:

  • Apprehended Violence Order applications
  • children’s care and protection matters
  • complaints about services
  • consumer law
  • criminal
  • debt
  • discrimination
  • employment matters
  • fines
  • Guardianship and financial management
  • National Disability Insurance Scheme appeals; and
  • will and estates.

Click here to go to the IDRS website or call the Ability Rights Centre on (02) 9265 6350 from 9:00am to 5:00pm, Monday to Friday.

10F.6.4: Homeless Persons’ Legal Service (HPLS)

If you are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, you can get free legal advice by the Homeless Persons’ Legal Service (HPLS) through a network of clinics.

Click here for the location and times of the clinics.

HPLS provides legal advice on the following areas of law including:

  • Apprehended Violence Orders
  • Centrelink or social security matters
  • consumer law
  • credit and debt
  • criminal
  • employment
  • family law
  • fines
  • tenancy
  • wills and estates
  • victims compensation

HPLS can help people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness by giving them information about the law and a referral to another legal service provider where necessary. In some cases, they also provide representation.

You can contact HPLS on (02) 8898 6545 or (02) 8898 6500 from 9:00am to 5:00pm, Monday to Friday.

10F.6.5: Senior Rights Service (SRS)

Seniors Rights Service (SRS) is a Community Legal Centre that provides free telephone advice, aged care advocacy and support, legal advice and rights-based education to people in NSW. They assist people who are aged sixty-five years (65) or over, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged fifty-five (55) or over.

The legal team provides advice about the following issues:

  • consumer law (debt management, unsatisfactory good and services, unfair contracts)
  • human rights issues (abuse; access to medical records or government information; age discrimination)
  • planning ahead documents (wills, Power of Attorney, Guardianship)
  • any issues related to retirement villages; and
  • any issues related to strata.

For more information about Seniors Rights Service’s legal services, click here.

Aged care advocates assist older people who receive Commonwealth-funded aged care services at home or in residential care, as well as their carers or family members. They can help you understand your issues, provide information, inform you of your rights, identify possible outcomes, help you advocate for yourself and, if requested, speak for you. For example, many people feel uncomfortable raising a complaint about a service they depend on for their daily care.

For more information about aged care advocacy that is non-legal, click here.

The Seniors Rights Service offer a range of useful information and resources. To read more, click here.

Call the Senior Rights Service on 1800 424 079* from 9:00am to 4:30pm, Monday to Friday.

Translating and Interpreting Services (TIS) phone: 13 14 50*

Users who are deaf or have a hearing or speech impairment can call through the National Relay Service: TTY users phone 133 677*, then ask for (02) 9281 3600.

Click here to go to Seniors Rights Service website.

*Mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) and to Local call numbers (numbers starting with 13 or 1300) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.

10F.6.6: Community Legal Centres

Community Legal Centres (CLCs) are independent, non-government organisations that provide free legal services to people and communities, particularly to people facing financial hardship, social disadvantage and discrimination.

CLCs can either be local or specialist legal centres that provide free legal advice and representation to the local community, or on particular areas of the law or to specific client groups, such as people with intellectual disability.

There are almost 40 CLCs in NSW. Below is a list, as well as links to their websites.

Specialist community legal centres in NSW

The specialist CLCs generally provide services across NSW and it is best to contact them by telephone to find out if they are the right service to assist you. The specialist CLCs that are most likely to be able to assist with legal problems related to mental illness are:

  • The Australian Centre for Disability Law (ACDL)
  • The Intellectual Disability Rights Service (IDRS)
  • The Homeless Persons’ Legal Service (HPLS); and
  • The Senior Rights Service (SRS).

Generalist community legal centres

Many local CLCs have drop-in advice sessions when volunteer and/or staff lawyers are available to give free legal advice. You should check the list of CLCs to find out if there is a local CLC near you.

You should contact CLCs by telephone before you visit them to get advice and/or representation. The CLC can then tell you whether they can help you and when, and if, they can provide a lawyer to give you advice.

10F.7: Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) (ALS)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can access the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) for culturally safe referrals, assistance, advice and representation.

The ALS provides assistance in these areas of law:

  • criminal matters, including Apprehended Violence Order matters. Contact 1800 765 767* for police charges and court matters
  • family law. The ALS Care and Protection team provides culturally safe, expert legal and non-legal assistance. They work to advocate the best possible outcome for children, parents, families and community. Call 1800 733 233*
  • the Greater Sydney Tenants Advice Service (GSATS) covering Sydney, Blue Mountains, Central Coast, Hawkesbury, Macarthur areas. They can assist you in a number of ways including: writing letters of support; telephone advice; attending the NSW Civil Administrative Tribunal (NCAT); NCAT Mediation and Advocacy; assisting with Housing Appeals Committee applications and hearings and other appeal applications; assisting to resolve repairs and maintenance issues; attend meetings with your landlord and negotiations with landlords; referrals and individual home visits. Phone: 02 9833 3314

Click here to go to their website for office locations and contact details.

10F.8: Pro bono Legal Services

Pro bono legal services are legal services that are provided by private lawyers at no or low cost to the client. ‘Pro bono’ means ‘for the public good’. Many private law firms do work for clients on a pro bono basis. The easiest way to find out if there is a firm or private lawyer that will help you with your legal problem on a pro bono basis is to contact one of the pro bono referral schemes in NSW:

10F.8.1: Justice Connect

Justice Connect matches organisations and individuals who are not eligible for legal aid and cannot afford a lawyer, to lawyers who will work on a pro bono basis. They are an independent network of thousands of Australia’s lawyers, including many of Australia’s best law firms.

Justice Connect works alongside universities, Community Legal Centres and professional associations, including the Law Society of NSW.

To read about the services Justice Connect can offer, click here.

To access the list of participating legal firms, click here.

To apply for help, click here.

Justice Connect can be contacted by:

Phone: (02) 8599 2100
Postal address: PO Box 436

10F.8.2: The Law Society of NSW Pro Bono Scheme

If you have been refused legal aid, but you need help with a legal problem, then you should consider approaching the Law Society of NSW under the Pro Bono Scheme.

The Law Society of NSW operates the Pro Bono Scheme, which coordinates referrals of clients to law firms, which are willing to provide legal assistance on a pro bono basis. Legal assistance may include legal advice, help with preparing documentation and representation in court.

The Law Society of NSW Pro Bono Scheme can help you if you:

  • have applied for, and been refused legal aid for the matter, confirmed in a letter from Legal Aid NSW
  • your matter must be within an area of law included by the scheme
  • have passed a means and merit test; and
  • your case must also have a reasonable prospect of success.

Areas of law included in the pro bono scheme include:

  • administrative law
  • Apprehended Violence Order applications
  • bankruptcy
  • children’s care and protection
  • civil claims
  • criminal law
  • debt and credit matters
  • discrimination matters
  • divorce
  • employment law
  • family law (limited to children’s matters)
  • immigration law for refugees
  • legal assistance for not-for-profit organisations and charities; and
  • wills and estates.

Types of matters that are not included from the Scheme include: child support disputes; commercial disputes; complaints about solicitors; defamation matters; disputes about legal costs; family law property disputes; motor vehicle accidents/traffic matters; neighbourhood disputes; personal injury claims; professional negligence claims; spousal maintenance claims and related disputes; victim’s compensation claims and worker’s compensation claims.

The Scheme cannot always guarantee that assistance can be found for all people who apply. Lawyers that are part of this Scheme have ‘discretion’ (or choice) to accept matters that are outside these guidelines due to exceptional circumstances, including disability, risk of physical harm to the applicant and extreme financial hardship.

You can click here to apply to the Scheme through the Law Society of NSW website.

10F.8.3: NSW Bar Association Legal Assistance Referral Scheme (LARS)

The Bar Association’s Legal Assistance Referral Scheme (LARS) tries find you a barrister or mediator who may be able to give advice, represent you or settle your legal issue. They consider your application carefully before deciding whether or not they can give you any legal assistance.

LARS cannot assist you in situations where:

  • you are eligible for legal aid
  • Legal Aid NSW or another legal assistance scheme has already declined your request because there was no reasonable prospect of success
  • your matter relates to certain types of cases, such as personal injury, medical negligence, a neighbourhood dispute or an Apprehended Violence Order; or
  • if your total household income, before tax, is more than $1,000 per week.

LARS cannot assist for free if your application is likely to result in a trial or hearing set down for more than five (5) days.

The Duty Barrister Schemes are managed by the NSW Bar Association. This Scheme involves barristers being on ‘duty’ at court to advise you and, if appropriate, represent you. The Scheme operates in particular local courts to help people who cannot afford a lawyer, who do not qualify for legal aid and who have a matter before the court on the day.

To apply, contact the NSW Bar Association Legal Assistance Referral Scheme

Street address: 174 Phillip Street
Phone: (02) 9232 4055
Fax: (02) 9221 1149

Updated February 4, 2021