Making a difference: Karina Okotel, civil lawyer, Frankston

Making a difference: Karina Okotel, civil lawyer, Frankston

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Karina Okotel

Life-changing experiences as a volunteer in Uganda, and her Sri Lankan parents’ keen interest in issues of poverty and persecution, led lawyer Karina Okotel to her role as a civil advocate in our Frankston office.

‘The law is very powerful and through our work we can make a big difference to people who struggle to speak up for themselves,’ Karina said.

Since starting at Victoria Legal Aid in 2012, Karina has formed a network of community workers, forging links with the counselling, substance abuse, financial and other services where legal problems are often first identified. This initiative has led to a 24 per cent increase in civil law work by the Frankston office this year.

Initially working in private legal practice, Karina moved into community legal work after volunteering in war-torn Uganda for six months. Inspired by this experience she has since returned to Uganda twice.

‘It made me realise that I wanted to focus on work where I could make a real difference.’

‘Back home, I worked for the Tenants’ Union where it was a real privilege to help people on the brink of homelessness.

‘The experience was eye-opening. Many people, including me before I worked there, have little idea of how widespread poverty is in this country.’

At Frankston, Karina is finding infringements and debt are massive problems.

‘We see people caught in generational poverty, where unemployment, mental health problems and substance abuse have become entrenched. Many people are trapped in a feeling of hopelessness that their lives will play out in the same way as their parents’ did.’

Helping people at the Mental Health Review Board, Karina sees the intersection between legal and other problems.

‘There may be family violence, substance abuse, debt and Centrelink issues tangled up, all of which impact on a person’s mental health.’

Although sometimes saddened by the difficult circumstances of her clients, Karina feels rewarded when she knows she’s been able to help.

‘Recently I helped a woman with four young children avoid a six-month jail term because of thousands of dollars in unpaid fines. She’d only just got her life on track after recovering from heroin addiction and escaping a violent relationship.

‘For her to go to jail would have jeopardised her progress and meant her children ended up in state care, risking them falling into the same spiral of disadvantage.'

More information

For more information about how we can help you with your legal problem, see Debt and financial issues or call Legal Help on (03) 9269 0120 or 1800 677 402 (country callers), Monday to Friday 8.45 am to 5.15 pm.

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