Shayla Strapps: “There is no justice when one party is represented with good lawyers and the other isn’t.”

The Piddington Society
4 min readMar 6, 2020

For International Women’s Day (8 March), The Piddington Society is asking different women who have shown a distinct commitment to access to justice and pro bono work.

Shayla Strapps is one of those people who when you are in a rut or have a question you turn to for advice.

She has long been a staple and leader of the community legal sector, having worked at Legal Aid, Women’s Law Centre and as CEO of The Humanitarian Group.

She is one of the most committed lawyers we know and also sets an example of how to have a life outside of law too.

Shayla Strapps, CEO of the Mental Health Law Centre WA (MHLC) and the Exec Manager Legal at Ruah Community Services

What inspired you to practice law?

My Uncle, who was a Magistrate.

I loved going to Court and watching him and hearing all the stories.

It’s also a cliché, but I do enjoy helping people. Feeling like we are making a real and tangible difference every day keeps me coming to work.

How do you manage the pressures of practice?

I try to be pragmatic. In a CLC there are endless demands from clients who are in need, and you can never meet them all.

Being pragmatic about who we can help and who we can’t is important and stops overwhelm. This can be frustrating, and often sad, but I try to direct the energy from that into calls for better funding and changes in policies.

And I take advantage of the great leave policies that my employer has to take breaks to be with my family and take time out.

What does your life outside of work look like?

Mum to two boys, wife to a very supportive husband who puts up with me working more than I should.

Large and extended Croatian family, caravanning, walking, reading, studying French.

I love travelling and so do so whenever I can, both in Australia and overseas.

What do you wish more lawyers knew about your work?

Where do I start on this one?!

Many lawyers do not understand how important and all consuming the work of a CLC is, or how incredibly skilled CLC lawyers are, and the constant assumption that being a CLC lawyer is somehow easier or less pressured!

I’d also like them to know how stressful and overwhelming it can be to be faced with a client for whom you may be ‘their last port of call’. I’d like them to know the responsibility that you feel towards a client when they are not well and when you can see that the system does not understand them and their issues.

Access to justice underpins the whole legal system and our democracy, and how without good advocacy in our justice system, there is no justice.

Mostly, I wish that CLC lawyers were not looked down upon by the profession, and recognised for the experts that they are in their fields and for the amazing work that they do all day every day for the most vulnerable in our society.

I’d also like to see the funders recognise this skill and expertise and fund us properly so that we can pay our lawyers the same as what government lawyers get paid.

What does gender equality mean to you and what do you think the profession need to do to improve on this front?

Gender equality means that you have an equal shot at living a happy and healthy life, regardless of gender.

I’d like to see better parental leave policies, and better flexible work options that treat men and women equally, so that both parents can equally share parenting their children.

What does justice mean to you?

Justice to me means that each side of any matter has had access to good advocacy.

There is no justice when one party is represented with good lawyers and the other isn’t.

Access to good advice and advocacy is the cornerstone of justice.

Shayla is the CEO of the Mental Health Law Centre WA (MHLC) and the Exec Manager Legal at Ruah Community Services.

In her role as Exec Manager Legal, Shayla looks after the legal affairs, governance and compliance of Ruah Community Services, a large not for profit community service organization. Shayla is also a Director and CEO of Mental Health Law Centre, Ruah’s subsidiary.

Shayla also works as an adjunct lecturer with the College of Law WA, is on the Council of the Law Society of WA and is a Director of Law Access.

The Mental Health Law Centre was established in 1997 as a result of recommendations made in the Report of the Ministerial Taskforce on Mental Health in March 1996.

The Centre opened at the same time the Mental Health Act 1996 came into operation and provided advice and representation to clients with mental health issues who had been made involuntary under the Act.

The Centre has continued to expand to provide legal advice and representation in a variety of areas of law that impact on people with a mental illness.