Over a six month period as part of my PLT requirement, I undertook volunteer work experience at my local Victoria Legal Aid office. Victoria Legal Aid provides legal advice and representation for clients who are disadvantaged and cannot afford a private lawyer. I decided to volunteer my time to not only see how the service is delivered, but also to become exposed to the world of advocacy and experience some cases in action – something I knew would be different than being at a firm.
Volunteering at Legal Aid
The first thing I would do when I arrived at the office was collect the files of existing clients whose matters were going to be heard in court that day. I’d then organise them in alphabetical order, so I could easily locate them once the client arrived. After this, I would head down to the Magistrates’ Court for the day. Upon arriving, I would greet the lawyers and court staff and wait for the duty lawyer to be ready and for court to open. Once I got the ‘ok’ from the duty lawyer, I’d begin my tasks as a clerk. I’d start by visiting the Criminal Registry to collect the court files of clients who had arrived and asked to see us for legal advice or representation for their case. In a numbered order, I’d record their name on what is called a Duty Lawyer Record - a form containing all client details as well as the charges being held against them that serves as a record for Legal Aid to keep track of their clients.
If they were an existing client, I would locate their file and make sure all the information was up to date before handing it to the lawyer. If we had a new client asking to use our service, I would hand them the form so they could fill out all of their details, including personal, medical and financial information. This was so that I could assess whether they were eligible. I would then visit the prosecutors and collect the brief of charges and note them down on the form before handing it to the lawyer to look over before I sent the client in. Once all the bits and pieces were together in their file, the clients could then be sent in to receive their advice.
If the client isn’t eligible for the service i.e. they didn’t meet the criteria, I would hand them some information about appearing in person for their case and invite them to speak to the prosecutors to discuss their plea. Alternatively, I would put them in touch with a private lawyer (often they are already at court dealing with their own existing clients and can usually set up an appointment straightaway). This process would be repeated until I had accounted for each client. Once the clients have seen the lawyer and there were no more further clients arriving, I would get the chance to sit in and watch some advice being given and some cases being heard. Sometimes I would visit the family violence division and observe the cases there. I would also run errands for the lawyers whenever they needed it. Sometimes this involved running back to the office to collect a missing file or document, other times it involved asking court staff to set future dates for cases that were going to be adjourned.
After court closed for the day, we would all head back to the office, and I would organise the files back into their places, making sure that adjourned cases were copied and placed on the front desk to be entered into the system and the finalised ones stored away. Overall I had a great time learning about the happenings of the Magistrates’ Court and criminal law, as well as how Victoria Legal Aid runs its service. I met some great people and had valued my time there immensely. I would greatly encourage anyone to express their interest in taking part.
This guest post article was written by Jessica Awad. Jessica is a law student at Deakin University. She was a Court Clerk at Victoria Legal Aid from July – December 2015. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of Victoria Legal Aid. You can connect with her on LinkedIn. If you are interested in contributing a blog piece, get in touch with us.