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The True Roots of Law: Jeremy Rea & HPLS

Studying law is about as much a guarantee for a comfortable future as it is a stable career path, and it is at the top of anyone who’s-got-money-on-their-mind’s life choice list. Parents who want to boast about their children’s job will almost always push them to be a lawyer, a doctor or a finance whiz – well, perhaps the latter, not so much anymore. It is a career that has long been associated with luxury, long hours… and maybe a shark or two thrown in the mix.
This is exactly why meeting the Homeless Persons’ Legal Service (HPLS) solicitor advocate Jeremy Rea was a welcome diversion from the black-suited stereotypes (and for me at least, an ardent refusal to apply to law school). After 20 years in private practice, Jeremy decided he wanted to make a difference that didn’t involve a price tag. He moved into the offices of HPLS about two years ago.

“I felt I had done as much as I could in private practice, because I didn’t go into law for money – I went into law to assist people,” he says.

And refreshingly enough, he even started out this way. Drawn to law because of its ability to impact people’s lives and provide assistance to those who need it most, Jeremy graduated with a degree in the field from Macquarie University in 1987 and went straight into criminal law.

“There is a depth to what you’re dealing with in criminal law – it isn’t just based on facts,” he says.

He has brought his passion for justice and the right for all people to “have their day in court” with him to HPLS, where he represents homeless people who have run into trouble with the law. Although he concedes that the transition did involve a pay cut, he attests that it didn’t faze him at all. After all, he didn’t get into law for the money, remember?

“It’s not say private practice doesn’t assist people, but I felt I could make more impact with this type of work without dealing with money,” he says.

“I would much rather get up in the morning and do something worthwhile than chase a higher paycheque.”

Run by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, HPLS was established in 2004 as a social service to deal with the problems many homeless people face, such as access to housing, social security and the like. It is funded by a mixture of government funding, legal aid and endowments, and it has been running clinics out of various outreach centres throughout the city, which are rotationally staffed by big-firm lawyers who are working on the service pro-bono.

Jeremy’s role was created by and large due to demand. In the course of its time, HPLS found many homeless people were seeking criminal law advice, which was either too difficult for them to get or was too difficult to navigate through the red-tape. Jeremy is now the one who works with homeless people on a one-on-one basis when they need him most – and like most things in demand, his services have definitely been put to good use. He has a long roster of clients and is in court every day, assisting with both sentencing and defence.

Jeremy Rea

“I get a buzz from helping people stay away from jail and get back on track,” he says.
“A lot of these people have serious drug, alcohol or mental health issues, and the prospect of a court case brings them a lot of anxiety.
“Many haven’t had any assistance in terms of treatment, counselling or support prior to their arrest. Before they are sent to jail, if they have such problems they are referred to a treatment service and are given three months to overcome their problems.”

Jeremy says that if his clients stick to the program, there are major benefits, not least of which is avoiding jail. They are being granted the opportunity to overcome the very problem that landed them in court in the first place.

Before Jeremy’s role existed, homeless people either wouldn’t turn up to court (which would often lead to a warrant for their arrest), they would represent themselves or they would attempt to get legal aid, a service which Jeremy says is wonderful but in his opinion, overburdened and under-funded.

“I assist clients in court and getting to court, as they often have no track of time and place. I know the clients, so I know what I’m dealing with and I can keep tabs on their whereabouts,” he says.
“I also interact with outreach centres, so I become aware of clients’ problems on both an emotional and social level.”

And a lot of the time it’s exactly this level of understanding which enables him to see through the murky situations that homeless people are all too often prone to.

“I once defended someone who was charged for possessing a weapon, but he simply had to carry a knife with him at all times simply to eat – we may stock it in our kitchen, but he had to carry it in his pocket,” says Jeremy.

While his success rate is certainly one to be proud of, Jeremy says the police will not run cases without evidence – so he has to take the defeats as they come and take comfort in the fact that his clients were properly defended. In other words, they didn’t feel powerless.
That is not to say the job doesn’t have its difficulties, even if dealing with defeats is something he has grown accustomed to.

“It can be difficult to negotiate the court bureaucracy and get clients to understand the process that has to be gone through – it’s not just one, but a number of appearances in court,” he says.
“Dealing with clients with mental health issues can also be a challenge, particularly when they’ve had brain damage, as they can be fairly unpredictable.”

But managing such personalities is a learned skill, and one that Jeremy seems to have acquired over time. He says it takes a great deal of patience and a methodology of calmly and firmly explaining the situation without turning it into a confrontation.

“In criminal law, you have to be very thick skinned – it burns people out,” he says.

“I think it’s important to put yourself in their shoes – empathy is everything.”

Needless to say, Jeremy believes public compassion could go a long way.

“People need to know that in these uncertain times, anyone can become homeless, and we have a duty to assist those who have fallen into this predicament, as they are often the most vulnerable,” he says.
“They need representation in court. Like everyone else, it’s not fair to expect them to represent themselves.”

words: Seema Duggal


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