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Taking the law into her own hands

News

Cite as: September 2012 86 (09) LIJ, p.32.

Watching her mother’s struggles to gain access to the law made Azmeena Hussain determined to become a lawyer.

This is an account of her mother’s legal difficulties and her own introduction to the profession. She is now a lawyer with Maurice Blackburn.

Her parents arrived in Melbourne in 1979 as Sri Lankan migrants hoping to integrate and prosper in Australian society. However in 1987, the year after she was born, her father returned to Sri Lanka – forever leaving behind his family and the family business. Her mother suddenly found herself alone with a small child and legal issues to deal with.

“Initially, my mother tried to resolve legal matters on her own. She started appearing at court on her own until the court told her not to come back without legal representation. Eventually she tracked down a Sri Lankan retired lawyer who had visited our house and who used to specialise in what he called “ADT” or Any Damn Thing.

He put my mum in contact with a lawyer who assisted her. That lawyer was a generous man and became someone she relied on. He resolved my mother’s family law matters and it was only recently I found out he wasn’t even a family lawyer; he specialised in tax.

Mum trusted this lawyer because the Sri Lankan lawyer and her community did. It made me realise that access to the law was not a matter of searching for a firm in the yellow pages or knowing its reputation. It was about trust. Word of mouth from community was so much more important than any other accolade.

I remember when I was four I attended these lawyers’ appointments with my mum. I saw how my mother relied heavily on their advice. I would witness how these lawyers would allay my mother’s fears and how she felt reassured that her family matters were being dealt with by people she could trust.

Witnessing this, I was determined to become a lawyer. I wanted to be a lawyer to help my mother the way these lawyers did. I could see the profound impact they had on her and I wanted to help her in the same way.

I used to always tell my mother, “Just wait, I will become a lawyer to help you out”. I was convinced that she was waiting. So I started reading Readers Digest law books in primary school. You can only imagine what my mum was like on the day of my admission. I don’t think the partner from Maurice Blackburn who moved my admission had been kissed so many times by a woman other than his wife.

My mum’s experiences really opened my eyes to the journey a migrant woman takes to merely have access to the law. So for me, it’s now about giving back to my community.

When many newly arrived migrants settle in Australia, there is this automatic “us and them” – us being the migrants and their familiar migrant communities, and them being the wider Australian community. There is fear of those in uniform such as police, and distrust of those in authority.

I did some work experience with a criminal lawyer and was sitting in on an interview with a woman who had accumulated substantial parking fines for merely not understanding the law. The lawyer was inquiring about the Centrelink benefit she was on for the purposes of pleading with the court for the smallest instalment plan, and the client was hesitant in providing those details because she feared the lawyer was trying to get her into trouble somehow by doing an audit with the tax department when the lawyer was just trying to help her.

So what underpins this fear and divide? There is a lack of trust which is due to a lack of understanding which creates a lesser sense of belonging.

Because of this disconnect, enforcing and asserting one’s rights comes only over time, when there is an increased sense of belonging.

I have spoken to female groups at local mosques across Melbourne at “know your rights” sessions. I remember at the first session I spoke at I went on and on about how to pursue your rights when injured at work. During questions, I realised I had to take a step back and explain to a majority of the attendees that they are actually protected if they are injured at work.

I heard horror stories of female factory workers, too scared to inform their boss when they injured themselves. I spoke with a woman who had her finger caught in a large commercial sewing machine requiring stitches and surgery. She didn’t report it, but rushed home with her hand wrapped in cloth because she didn’t want to lose her job for causing her injury.

Like my mother, until people know their rights in relation to a legal issue, you can be sure a woman would call on her aunt, cousin or a daughter who is studying first year law for trusted advice, rather than phone a law firm for some free, genuine legal advice.

So how can we as lawyers go from being one of them to one of us? It is about building connections and genuinely getting to know our communities and creating understanding and meaningful relationships.

If we do not find new and better ways to become more open and approachable for these communities, we will quickly become out of touch.”

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