By the time Sharon arrived at Roma House, an emergency accommodation service for people with complicated homelessness, she’d had a number of violent partners, struggled for years with alcohol dependency as her “coping” mechanism, and had “lost” a young child to foster care. Sharon had been in rehab and stayed at a number of domestic violence refuges for women.

 

At Roma House, her support worker invited Sharon to connect with the outreach legal clinic known as the Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic (HPLC) which is coordinated by the Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House (QPILCH) – a community legal centre which harnesses pro bono resources. 

 

Sharon didn’t have the usual debts with pay day lenders or unpaid fines, but she did have a debt with the Tax Office (for not putting in returns through all those years of domestic violence). She also wanted to get on the list for state housing and to spend more time with her child in foster care.

 

The HPLC lawyers started working on Sharon’s legal issues. However, one night Sharon was intoxicated and got into a fight with a fellow resident in the Roma House dining room.

 

Police on the beat heard the commotion and came to break it up. A young officer grabbed Sharon from behind, which reminded her of all the years of violence she had endured. As the officer handcuffed Sharon, pushing her to the floor and concussing her in the process, she kicked out.

 

 

An ambulance was called to check on Sharon as she regained consciousness; she was then handed a “Notice to Appear” by the officer – for ‘assault police’.

 

Sharon met with the HPLC lawyers soon after the incident. It appeared the officer had used a disproportionate use of force to subdue Sharon. The lawyers confirmed that Sharon was not eligible for Legal Aid but agreed to brief a barrister on the HPLC Criminal Law List, who took up the matter pro bono and provided strategic advice and overall guidance on defending the prosecution. The HPLC handled the factual and legal investigations, including taking statements from witnesses and obtaining documents from third parties.

 

After months of preparatory work, the matter was set for trial but then referred to mediation where the police agreed to discontinue the prosecution on the condition that Sharon apologised to police. Sharon met with the officer, apologised and the charge was dismissed.

 

Sharon found the whole experience healing. The mediation increased her understanding of the challenges faced by police. Instead of a criminal conviction on her clean record, which would have jeopardised her chances of reuniting with her child, she was motivated to keep working on her ‘big issues’. Her support worker says that the respect and advocacy Sharon received through the HPLC made such a difference to her sense of well-being that she changed from feeling powerless to feeling hope and a sense of possibility.

 

Sharon told the HPLC that she would like to do the kind of work we did – helping others. Sharon went on to sort out her alcohol dependency, was placed in secure housing and succeeded in having her child returned to her care.

 

Even Sharon’s tax hassles were resolved; the HPLC lawyers contacted the ATO, which acknowledged the context of hardship and waived the penalty.

 

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The Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic involves law firms and the community sector partnering with QPILCH to deliver the only free civil law service targeting homeless Queenslanders. The HPLC collaborates with community workers to offer client-focused, holistic services and reduce barriers to housing by addressing the multiple legal needs of homeless clients, including debts, tenancy and crime.

 

The HPLC is co-located at 14 community agencies across Queensland, with over 300 volunteer lawyers from 23 firms providing representation and assistance to over 4000 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness and harnessing over $10m of pro bono legal assistance since December 2002.