Piddington PLT in the South West: Saudamini Bhagat goes to Bunbury

South West Community Legal Centre hosted Saudamini Bhagat for a two-week placement in July 2021.

We love getting out of Perth. It isn’t just the fresh air, open roads and the many good people out in the regions, but also because of the need for access to justice and the nature of the legal issues.

For a variety of reasons, it is hard to conduct Piddington PLT outside of a city, so we jump at any chance we get to have grads do placements with regional community legal centres (CLCs).

Eleanor Yates, the Principal Solicitor of South West Community Legal Centre (SWCLC) in Bunbury, contacted Piddington about the possibility of hosting a Piddington PLT grad for a short placement.

We thought this would be a great opportunity for a grad to see justice in action in the South West — and it definitely was.

Saudamini Bhagat is completing Piddington PLT this year and took on the task of spending two weeks with South West CLC in their Bunbury office.

We asked her a few questions about her experiences in the South West.

As I was at SWCLC only for 2 weeks the acting Principal Legal Officer wanted me to learn and understand how they work and help their clients, so I started by shadowing the intake officer.

I started from the bottom of that is the intake process of clients. How do we contact our clients or how we can assist our clients? How to conflict check through CLASS and make sure that we are able or unable to assist this particular client.

I sat down with the intake officer and learned how to check all the details of the clients, what their concerns were and what day they would be available for an appointment so that we could schedule appointments accordingly.

I was supervised by two senior solicitors, and I sat in client interviews with both supervisors. The issues that SWCLC dealt with were family violence restraining orders (FVRO), Parenting Orders, Property matters and Criminal Injuries Compensation. I learned more about trauma-informed lawyering and saw my supervisor in action while helping one of her clients.

I also shadowed Duty Lawyer at Bunbury Courthouse assisting clients with FVRO. The duty lawyer’s job was pretty critical as they had to conflict check before they could assist any unrepresented clients. They would help with negotiating Conduct Agreement Orders as the court would offer these orders to the client before going to trial as it saved the client from going through a long process of trial.

Other than this I helped the lawyers with document preparation, making inquiries for the right forms and processes concerning dispensing of services. I researched Criminal Injuries Compensation Matters.

I am still in a process of finding a job and I am open to moving anywhere in Western Australia to work as a lawyer. As a Piddington PLT student, I have learned how important networking is to gain knowledge and a chance to find work.

I wanted to have a first-hand experience of how CLC operates in regions of WA and what challenges they face when they are helping the people who may reside anywhere from Mandurah to Albany.

The SWCLC covers a large area of Southern West Australia. The SWCLC have amazing outreach programs set up to reach as many people as possible and provide them legal advice. I was able to associate with and learn from the experienced and passionate lawyers of SWCLC.

Also, I have had experience working solely with female clients and I had no experience in working for male clients, SWCLC gave me that opportunity.

SWCLC have recently started opening files for clients and assist them in their matters. Earlier they were mostly involved with tasks and would help clients with the preparation of their documents, helped them understand the court process and guided them whenever they were not sure what they should do next.

When I went to SWCLC the matters that my supervisors were dealing with were Family Court matters such as divorce, parenting orders and property. They helped with care plans. We also dealt with criminal injuries compensation matters and domestic violence. SWCLC also provides duty lawyer services, and I was able to shadow duty lawyer on two occasions.

I had an opportunity to meet Magistrate Belinda Coleman. The HR manager from SWCLC contacted her Honour and arranged to meet her for a coffee.

When I met Magistrate Coleman, I was not sure about myself and whether I will make any sense when I speak to her. However, when I met her and shook her hand, I was at ease instantly.

She asked me about myself and where I was in my career, what my plans were and did I enjoy working in CLCs.

Magistrate Belinda Coleman and Saudamini Bhagat

I had prepared questions for Her Honour’s journey from being a police prosecutor to becoming a State Prosecutor at ODPP for Western Australia and now a Magistrate. She told me about how hard she had worked as a Police Prosecutor and the challenges she had faced. She was an HD student and when she said she scored 98 in Criminal Law I was in awe. I asked her how challenging it has been for her to change her role from being a State Prosecutor to being a Magistrate as she has to be impartial, non-judgemental and give orders based on the merits of the case. Her Honour said that the role came with its challenges, but she loves her work as a Magistrate.

When I said I am still struggling, trying to find work and have achieved nothing, her Honour stopped me from saying anything further and asked me to acknowledge the journey I have been on coming from India to Western Australia and almost ready to be admitted as a lawyer. She asked me to keep her updated with my progress and would be happy to meet in Perth as she is going to move to Perth in December.

Her Honour added she would miss her Circuit Courts.

While I was shadowing the duty lawyer, I was able to sit in Magistrate Coleman’s court and watch the court proceedings.

I was supervised by two of the most passionate, dedicated and kind-hearted senior lawyers who took their work seriously and wanted me to learn as much as I could in two weeks period.

Whenever I think of mentors, I always think about them and how good it would be for me to find a mentor who can guide me through my professional life. I wanted to spend more time at SWCLC and learn as much as I could.

Luckily, I have now got an opportunity to volunteer two days a week at SWCLC starting Monday, 20 September 2021. I will be going back and learning more from my supervisors.

My experience has taught me that justice is not an end goal, it is a constant process.

There are rules and regulations that we as lawyers are required to know and follow them. The power is not only in the knowledge of the law but also in how we apply this knowledge in best practice. I have learned that we must put our personal preferences aside and place law above all. I learned about being truthful and managing client’s expectations before you advise them on their matter.

I learned that CLCs are trying to reach as many people as possible to help them get justice, however, we are still short in reaching out to the mass who requires help and are disadvantaged due to lack of access.

I understand the path to justice is filled with many challenges and every lawyer has its role to play.

Piddington PLT is taking applications for our 2022 cohort at the moment.

Find out the details and apply here.

Lawyers promoting collegiality, seeking access to justice.