Being married to a Veteran helped her see first hand the need for accessible legal services to address their specific legal issues.
We spoke to Sarah about how Duty First Legal Service came about, why there’s a need for a dedicated legal service to support Veterans, and how she went about starting her own practice.
What inspired you to start Duty First Legal Services?
“I was inspired by my personal experiences, and those of the Veteran Community. My husband is a Veteran, and suffered a lot of issues. When he needed legal help, we often couldn't afford to see a private firm due to the cost.”
“I started studying law with the intention of using it to help people in a really practical way. While I was studying, we were going through a particularly hard time. My husband wasn't well and I was being supported by Legacy. They helped me in some practical areas, such as helping me to arrange daycare or groceries, so I could continue working. I developed a friendship with my Legacy support person, Kerri, an amazing woman.”
“One day she mentioned that she was helping some clients who were suffering from legal issues, and they often found it hard to access existing services, as they couldn't afford commercial solicitors. I wanted to help them, so once I was admitted, I started Duty First Legal Services.”
“Duty First is a not-for-profit service because it's not about the money for me. It's about supporting those who have worked to protect our country, and to recognise their service by providing them with affordable and accessible help when they need it.”
Why is there a need for dedicated legal services for Veterans?
“Due to their unique training, Veterans think differently to the normal population. What makes them a good soldier or member of the Armed Services may affect them in regular life. Unfortunately, Veterans experience a high rate of suicide, almost twice the national average for men aged 18-24. We have lost more Veterans to suicide than we lost during the Afghanistan war.”
“Veterans often experience mental health issues, which can lead to higher rates of homelessness and divorce than the general public. Veterans are very proud by nature and find it hard to ask for help. Often when they do ask for help, they are handballed from one service to another. This creates a lot of anxiety for them. It takes time to build trust.”
“I believe that Veterans really need guidance and assistance, unique from other Community Legal Services. You can’t simply tell them what to do and leave them to their own devices. For people suffering mental health issues, homelessness or family breakdowns, what might seem simple to us can be overwhelming to Veterans.”
“If they are experiencing financial issues, they often can't afford to pay for legal help. If they have separated from their family, they are often couch surfing and don't have access to support. A lot of them use alcohol to numb themselves and then might do silly things and end up in a bit of trouble with the law.”
“My personal experience with Veterans is that if something is too hard, they often just won't deal with it, and then it snowballs into a much larger issue. They really need someone to sit down and do it with them and guide them through it. Sometimes, a Veteran will receive a letter from a solicitor, and experience anxiety as they think they have to do what the letter says, rather than seeing the letter as the start of a negotiation.”
“Veterans have a unique set of issues, unique training and therefore require a service that is unique to them and explains and understands what they have been through.”
What kind of support have you seen from the community?
“We have had a number of ex-service organisations offer to promote our services and promote us among the Veteran community, which has helped Veterans trust us to help them. I could not have started the service without the advice and support from those within the legal community, including our Principal Lawyer who shares my vision and passion for helping Veterans.”
“We have been lucky to be supported by our local Council with some grants, enabling us to purchase a printer, which has made a big difference to our service.”
“We rely on donations of cash or goods, which we can give to Veterans who are really struggling, or use as prizes for fundraising raffles. We also welcome volunteers, especially family or criminal lawyers. You can attend our fundraising events or become a Duty First Supporter for $30 a year, knowing that this support will go towards Veterans being able to access practical, hands-on assistance. There is strength in numbers. As a not-for-profit service, the more supporters we have, the more we can lobby to support the Veteran community, and the more people might see the value in the work we are doing.”
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
“Knowing that I have helped someone who really deserved the help, and who couldn't find that help anywhere else. Every single person we’ve helped has been grateful for our assistance. Someone has listened to their problem; someone has turned up for them. You can often see the weight lift off their shoulders.”
“Starting a not-for-profit community legal service has not been without its challenges. It often feels like we take one step forward, two steps back. However, when I start to feel like it is too difficult, we have someone come in who is just so deserving of assistance, and couldn't find help anywhere else. It makes me feel so happy to be able to help someone who was willing to sacrifice their life for our freedom. Providing some legal help to relieve their stress is the least that I could do.”
What was your journey to starting Duty First Legal Services?
“I completed my Practical Legal Training and Legal Practice Management Course (LPMC) with the College of Law. The LPMC provided me with practical skills and the confidence I needed to start Duty First Legal Services. I was almost embarrassed to tell people about Duty First Legal, in case it didn’t work out.
“During my LPMC, everyone was encouraging. In fact, they provided me with tips and opinions from a different point of view which I would not have considered. When I had questions about the topics, my facilitator, Mary Hockaday, was always willing to help, and never made me feel embarrassed for asking a question.”
“The Business Plan I created as part of my assessment is one I still use today. It gave me a really practical and useful document for me to use in real life. The College of Law made studying enjoyable. The College had presenters who were on topic, on trend, and relevant to real life practice. I also made contact with fellow students for advice, relationships I’ve maintained since completing the LPMC.”
What advice would you give lawyers starting out in their careers or breaking out on their own?
“Do something you are passionate about. If you are passionate about what you are doing, studying will feel like a challenge, not a chore. If you need help, ask for help. You will find that people are so happy to help. Talk to people at the College, including the facilitators, and get involved with your fellow students, because they will become some of the most valuable contacts you can have.”
“The LPMC facilitators all have a wealth of experience and knowledge in their own areas of law and have amazing real life stories which they are usually willing to pass on. The other students often come from a broad range of practices and backgrounds. You just never know when you may need expertise in their area of law. Be respectful and collegiate to everyone you study with. Everyone has a different story. You don't know what someone has been through, or is going through, to be where they are.”