Dealing with legal problems

The legal system is complex, often difficult to understand and can be expensive. Legal problems can arise in a wide range of situations, although it is not always necessary to take legal action. If you do seek the advice or assistance of a lawyer, it is best to be prepared by doing some initial research yourself. Legal information can be very useful in dealing with legal problems and will help you in understanding legal advice.

Do you need a lawyer?

If you have a legal problem, finding out more about the particular area of law you are dealing with can help you to decide whether you need a lawyer.

It may also be possible to get some initial free legal advice before deciding what to do. Some solicitors advertise the first appointment free of charge, perhaps offering an obligation free quote (usually up to 20-30 minutes). There are also a number of agencies that provide initial free advice (see Legal help below).

Having a legal problem does not always mean it is necessary to take legal action. Sometimes there are other, alternative ways of solving problems or resolving disputes, for example by using mediation.

Finding and choosing a lawyer

The relationship between you and your lawyer is important. There are many factors that can contribute to a successful working relationship. Finding someone who you feel you can communicate with can be a very important factor. The other important factor is that you find someone who has experience in the appropriate area of the law.

As with most professional or trade services, there is no single or easy way to find a lawyer. Here are some strategies.

The Law Society of NSW

The Law Society of NSW is the professional association for solicitors in NSW. Membership of the Society is voluntary. The Law Society provides information and referral services that help members of the public to identify qualified solicitors that offer legal services appropriate to their needs. The Law Society website has a searchable online database of all current practising solicitors in New South Wales called Find a Lawyer.

The Law Society also has a Specialist Accreditation Program, which is a useful way of finding a solicitor who specialises in a particular area of the law. Lawyers who have specialist accreditation are required to have extensive experience, to have passed specialist exams and to maintain a high degree of continuing training annually.

Alternatively, you can contact the Law Society’s Solicitor Referral Service. They can refer you to three law firms that practise in a particular area of the law. You can request the names of firms in a specific geographic location, someone who speaks a particular community language or someone who will do a home or hospital visit. Tel: 1800 422 713 or (02) 9926 0300 (9-12 and 1-4 Monday-Friday) or email

The Law Society’s Pro Bono Scheme coordinates referrals of lawyers prepared to do pro bono work. ‘Pro bono’ (short for ‘pro bono publico’) means work done by the legal profession ‘for the public good’, either without charge or at a reduced fee, to individuals, charities, community organisations etc who meet certain means and merits tests.

Information about the Law Society’s Pro Bono Scheme can be found on the Law Society website or by contacting a Pro Bono Scheme staff member on 9926 0355.

Note that the Law Society does not recommend lawyers, but can provide the details of lawyers who match your requirements. It is up to you to choose a lawyer that best suits your needs and financial situation. Make sure you speak to a couple of law firms and ask a lot of questions before you make the final decision to retain a lawyer.

NSW Bar Association

Members of the public who wish to contact a barrister can locate one using the ‘Find a barrister’ database, located on the NSW Bar Association website.

The NSW Bar Association is the professional association for barristers.

The Bar Association has a Legal Assistance Referral Scheme, which is available to people who have a case that has ‘legal merit’ and who would face severe financial hardship by having to pay for legal help. ‘Legal merit’ means that it is likely that the case will be successful. The assistance is not necessarily free and may be provided on the basis that the barrister is paid only if the case is successful, on a reduced-fee basis or at normal rates.

The Bar Association also runs a Duty Barrister Scheme, which is available at the Sydney Central Local Court level 5 of the Downing Centre. It is for people who cannot afford a lawyer and who do not qualify for legal aid. You do not need to make an appointment.

You can find more information about both these schemes on the Bar Association’s website.

You may find it helpful to read some background information about your legal problem before deciding what to do. On this website you'll find useful and up-to-date information about most legal topics, for example family law, tenancy, buying a house, going to court, employment and debt. It will also point you to additional books in your public library and in the State Library of NSW. Public libraries in NSWhave a collection of plain language books called the Find Legal Answers Tool Kit and many libraries have additional legal books and DVDs.

If you have a legal problem, reading information about the area of law can help you to know the right questions to ask a lawyer. Practical guides to the law often suggest when it’s a good idea to get legal advice and when you may be able to resolve the problem yourself. Sometimes people work closely with their lawyer to save money by looking up cases and obtaining other information their lawyer needs.

The State Library of NSW, Macquarie St, Sydney has a wide range of resources about the law if you need to undertake specialist research.

LawAccess NSW

LawAccess NSW is a free government telephone service that provides legal information, referrals and in some cases advice for people who have a legal problem in NSW. The LawAccess website contains information about the law and legal issues, including LawAssist - a series of practical guides for people representing themselves in a court or tribunal.

You can call LawAccess on 1300 888 LAW (1300 888 529) between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays).

Legal Aid NSW is a government organisation that provides free legal advice and assistance. There are offices throughout NSW. Initial free advice, (not means tested) is available for a range of areas of the law, limited to about 20 minutes.

If you need more than legal advice, Legal Aid NSW may be able to provide a lawyer to help with your case. The lawyer may be employed by Legal Aid NSW or may be a lawyer in private practice, paid by Legal Aid to assist you. This is called being granted legal aid. To apply for a grant of legal aid, you need to fill in an application form.

Applications for legal aid are assessed on the basis of:

  • what you want legal assistance for
  • whether it is reasonable to grant legal aid (merit test)
  • what you earn and what you own (means test).

Legal aid is not free, and most people will be asked to pay a contribution. The amount depends on your financial situation and the area of the law.

Community Legal Centres are independent, non-profit organisations which provide legal advice and assistance for a range of individuals and groups in the community, especially those who are on low incomes or otherwise disadvantaged in their access to justice. Community Legal Centres give free advice and sometimes provide assistance in negotiating on your behalf, writing letters or representing you in court. Alternatively, they might refer you to another legal centre, Legal Aid NSW or a private solicitor.

Some Community Legal Centres are specialists in a specific area of the law, such as disability, debt, immigration, or tenancy, while other centres offer services for their geographical area.

The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) provides legal advice and representation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, women and children in criminal law, family law, and children’s care and protection law matters.

The ALS has a Custody Notification Service where police, by law, must notify the ALS whenever an Aboriginal person is taken into custody. An ALS lawyer will answer the phone, 24 hours/day, every day of the year. They will give the Aboriginal person legal advice and check they’re OK.

The ALS can be contacted at:

  • Criminal law - Tel: 1800 765 767
  • Children’s care and protection law - Tel: 1800 733 233