IN her short legal career Farzana Choudhury has already achieved a lot in a space that works with some of Canberra’s most vulnerable people.
“I always had an interest in social justice issues and did and do a lot of volunteer work around the community,” says Farzana, 30, who was awarded the Young Lawyer of the Year award at the ACT Law Society’s annual dinner and awards night in August.
Farzana can’t pinpoint what drove her to work with some of society’s most vulnerable people, but she says it’s something she’s always wanted to do.
“I always wanted to work in an area where I could help people who are experiencing disadvantage,” she says.
Farzana, who lives in Canberra’s inner north, is a senior solicitor of Street Law, a program of Canberra Community Law that provides outreach legal services for people experiencing or are at risk of homelessness.
But before getting her “dream” career with Canberra Community Law, Farzana was working in a graduate role in a Federal government department after moving from Sydney to Canberra in 2013.
While working full time, Farzana also went on to complete her graduate legal diploma and masters at ANU.
When Farzana started at Canberra Community Law more than five years ago, opportunities opened up for her to head some programs in the human rights space.
One saw her establish Street Law’s health justice partnership with the Junction Youth Health Service last year, and since has been working alongside health practitioners and youth work staff to address the unmet legal needs of young people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
“I established the Junction Youth Health Service to reach more young people and try and ensure any legal issues are dealt with as early as possible before they escalate,” she says.
“For the clients we see at Street Law, what might not seem like a massive issue could become a big issue.
“[And] the law can have barriers and I want to give more people access to the legal system and make sure people know what their rights are.”
While the award was completely unexpected, Farzana now wants to use the platform it has given her to raise awareness of some of the ACT’s most disadvantaged people.
Over the past financial year Farzana says 51 per cent of Street Law’s clients experienced domestic or family violence, 70 per cent had a disability, 58 per cent were women, 15 per cent had dependent children and 14 per cent were young people (under the age of 25).
“It’s always important that we’re giving clients the time and space to tell their story to us,” she says.
“There’s links between people having legal issues and it impacting on their health.”
Which is why Farzana believes it’s important to help get these people in a better position through the legal advice.
“Legal advice can help people get into public housing as early as possible,” she says.
One client who has really stood out for Farzana was a young woman with three children.
She was living in a refuge after fleeing domestic violence, which occurred in a public housing property.
“Housing ACT alleged she owed a lot of money because of damage to the property but a lot of it was related to domestic violence so we were able to reduce the debt significantly,” she says.
Farzana says that was really powerful for the woman because she was already facing homelessness and couldn’t afford to pay the debt.
Another huge issue Farzana regularly deals with is getting people without any identification records, ID.
“A lot of our clients will lose key identification because they might be homeless, they might not have stable accommodation or they might be fleeing a domestic or family violence situation,” she says.
“I think the general population might not realise how big of an issue homelessness is.
“There are a lot of invisible forms of homelessness.
“There’s plenty of gaps, too. There’s no crisis accommodation for people under 15 and a lot of people with pets find it difficult to find crisis accommodation.”
Over the past five years Farzana has also established the Women in Prison Legal Empowerment Sessions (WIPLES), a series of legal education seminars and advice clinics with the goal of supporting and empowering women in prison.
At the same time she volunteers with several community organisations such as the Night Time Legal Advice Service, Beryl Women Inc, the Women’s Centre for Health Matters, Homeless Connect Canberra and the International Tenants’ Day.
Farzana is also helping to organise the annual Canberra Homelessness Connect event at Canberra City Uniting Church, 11am-3pm, on October 17.
“On the day, homeless people can access free services and support such as hairdressing services, food, pet food and an ID clinic,” she says.