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 NSW have 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.

Legal Aid NSW is a state-wide independent government agency that helps people in NSW with their legal problems. They provide legal information to anyone with a legal problem in NSW through their legal information and referral service, LawAccess NSW.

Legal Aid lawyers provide legal advice and representation at court to people who are eligible. Eligibility depends on the kind of legal issue you have, and your circumstances.

They support people with all kinds of legal problems. They help with criminal law matters involving the police, family law matters involving children or a relationship breakdown, and civil law matters where you are having trouble with a fundamental need like housing, income support or access to health and disability supports.

LawAccess NSW is a free information service run by Legal Aid NSW. They provide legal information and referrals for people with a legal problem in NSW.

LawAccess NSW can connect you with the legal information you need over the phone, through webchat or online. Their website’s My problem is about section includes information on lots of legal topics and can help you solve a range of different legal problems. They can book an appointment for you at your local Legal Aid NSW office if your circumstances and your legal issue meet their criteria. They can also support you to access services in your area who can help you with your legal problem, refer you to a lawyer, a community legal service, the Aboriginal Legal Service, or a range of other services.

You can contact them via web chat or call them on 1300 888 529 from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays).

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