17 August 2023

Free legal service at ACAT gets funding boost to continue helping those in need

| Albert McKnight
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Agata Pukiewicz outside the ACT Civil Administrative Tribunal

Agata Pukiewicz enjoys helping people who need assistance at ACAT. Photo: Supplied.

A free legal service that provides assistance to those in disputes in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) will be given funding to allow it to continue for another year.

Minister for Consumer Affairs Shane Rattenbury has allocated almost $170,000 for local community organisation Care Incorporated to cover 12 months of operating costs for the Consumer Law Duty Service.

The service, aimed at people in need but open to everyone in Canberra, helps unrepresented litigants who bring consumer law disputes to ACAT and places independent consumer lawyers at the same location as the tribunal to provide legal advice and representation when necessary.

Care Consumer Law solicitor Agata Pukiewicz said the service was there to provide legal assistance to vulnerable and low income members of the community, although anyone could ask for its help.

“I think overall people are struggling under the level of debts currently, as well as the cost of living,” Ms Pukiewicz said.

She said the main areas of dispute she assisted with included home renovations, such as issues with tradespeople or the quality of work, as well as car repairs and sales.

Other problems involved people being pursued for debts at private schools, as well as a lot of insurance disputes, she said. Issues with solar panels were also becoming a common area.

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She said while the service had taken some time to set up, it was now quite busy and received many referrals.

“Now the service has picked up and it’s very busy, so there clearly is a demand,” Ms Pukiewicz said.

When a member of the community first encountered a problem, she said it was important to keep in mind many disputes could be resolved.

She said people may initiate legal proceedings without trying to negotiate, but the starting point was to talk to a lawyer who could look at relevant documents and see if the matter could be resolved.

“A lot of matters can be resolved by talking to the other party,” she said.

“Having said that, some matters can’t be resolved and we would advise on what can be done to prepare the matter.

“We can support a person and give advice on each stage of the process.”

Ms Pukiewicz, whose parents were accepted into Australia as refugees when she was a teenager, said she loved helping people through her job.

“I’ve grown up with people who have been disadvantaged and I find supporting people now who are struggling to access justice to be quite satisfying.”

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She said ACAT had conducted a lot of work to set up the service, which could also refer people to Care’s financial counselling team to provide them with holistic support.

The service can be accessed every Monday from 9 am to 4 pm in the Legal Assistance Room at ACAT, 15 Constitution Avenue, Civic. For more information, visit the service’s website.

The $168,000 in funding for the service comes from interest generated from the sale of uncollected goods under the Uncollected Goods Act 1996. It has been held in the Uncollected Goods Charitable and Social Welfare Fund, administered by GreaterGood.

The GreaterGood foundation was established by the ACT’s Public Trustee and Guardian to provide long-term financial support to charities and community initiatives in the capital region.

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