My name is Karen Ward and I am a solicitor in the Criminal Law Division of Legal Aid Western Australia.I represent people who have been charged with offence(s). Our client base are those who can’t afford private representation and would otherwise be unrepresented. I won’t lie and say that it is an easy job but I can say honestly that I absolutely love working with Legal Aid and enjoy the work I do.
When I reflect on the path that led me to this career it is a long and winding one. I realise that I have had a strong affiliation with the School of Indigenous Studies since I was a high school student in Manjimup and attended the Year 12 seminar.
In year 10 I wanted to leave school and become a hairdresser. I wasn’t an excellent student but I showed signs of my capabilities in certain subjects when the climate was right. By that I mean that I needed a subject I was interested in and a teacher that I liked and engaged me. If that combination wasn’t right I thought being successful at school was slipping under the radar for not completing tasks and staying awake until the bell went.
I am lucky that my Mum saw the value in education and encouraged me to stay at school. She would often hint that being a teacher would be a great profession. In hindsight that was something she always wanted to be but never had the opportunities that I did. She eventually went to university and got a teaching degree herself.
I didn’t get the mark I needed to get into uni after Year 12 but fortunately for me the staff at SIS had seen something in me that high school wasn’t able to bring out. They offered me a place in the Aboriginal Orientation Course. That course taught me how to learn and study. It also taught me a lot about myself, my Aboriginality and what interested me.
When I completed the Orientation Course, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts. I studied Anthropology, Philosophy, Psychology and Aboriginal History. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do then but I knew that I wanted to help people. I withdrew before I finished my first year as I became a teenage mum and gave birth to my now teenage son.
I moved back to the south west and worked but continued studying by correspondence. I kept in contact with the staff from SIS and when my son turned two I felt even more capable and ambitious and wanted to become a lawyer. I enrolled in the Aboriginal Pre-Law Course in 2000 and then 1st year law the same year. I graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in 2004.
I did criminal law in my first year and knew it was my passion right from then. While I studied, I had a cadetship with the Australian Federal Police and I worked for them on my semester breaks. When I completed my degree I took up a position as Associate to Her Honour Judge Yeats in the District Court of WA. It was there that I really developed an interest in advocacy and wanted to become a court lawyer. I went from there to Legal Aid and have worked in the Midland regional office and Perth city. I have been lucky enough to spend some of this time on circuit in the Mid-West, as the Drug Court Lawyer and also as a Children’s Court Lawyer.
One of the things that remains at the forefront of my mind at work and particularly as a Children’s Court lawyer is the over representation of Aboriginal children (and adults) in our criminal justice system. This gap is one that is unfortunately widening and one that needs priority commitment from our governments. I’m coming up for long service leave soon and I think I am ready to do some post graduate studies in this area. Once you develop a thirst for learning it is never quite quenched!