Sheetal Deo, the Founder of Shakti Legal Solutions in Helensvale, Queensland has been named the Smokeball Community Hero for 2023, announced at Smokeball Spark. The Smokeball Community Hero Award acknowledges the impactful work that small law firms conduct in their neighbourhoods, in particular those who go above and beyond to serve and enrich their communities.
Sheetal receives the honour for reinventing the business model for legal services to improve access to justice and for her commitment to delivering diversity and inclusion in the law.
Sheetal founded Shakti Legal Solutions, an innovative low-bono law firm designed specifically to improve access to legal assistance for everyday people through a unique, ‘pay what you can’ model for eligible clients.
Outside of her practice, Sheetal is a Queensland Law Society Councillor, works with the College of Law as an adjunct lecturer, runs a diversity and inclusion consultancy (The Diversity Collective) and volunteers her time on various not-for-profit organisations and boards to connect ideas, people and opportunities which amplify and empower underrepresented experiences.
The judges noted that Sheetal is passionate about leveraging platforms and privilege to connect ideas, people and opportunities that amplify and empower underrepresented experiences. Sheetal incorporates her political and social science training in her advocacy for equity and accessibility within the legal profession and the community it serves and works tirelessly to ensure that fairness and justice are real and accessible for all.
Bianca Bowron-Cuthill, General Manager, Smokeball congratulated Sheetal on her impactful work to empower all people involved in the legal system. “Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging – Sheetal’s work has turned these words into positive action. Her leadership, unwavering vision and commitment to equity for all is inspiring and exactly what the Community Hero award stands for. We are so grateful to Sheetal and all our brilliant runners-up for being such powerful agents of change. A huge congratulations to all and we loudly sing the praises of our unsung community heroes.”
Sheetal will be rewarded with a $5000 travel voucher to go towards a trip of her choosing, and five runners-up will receive a luxury hamper valued at $200.
The runners-up are:
Bronwyn Ambrogetti, Hunter Community Legal Centre, NSW
Bronwyn’s work is all about providing access to justice. This includes providing telephone advice for people who can’t travel, outreach legal clinics in regional towns, and helping clients with more complex matters obtain pro bono assistance. Bronwyn and the Hunter CLC team recently introduced a robot at Maitland Library for clients to contact our family lawyers and started a Microbusiness Legal Clinic for refugees and new arrivals, where pro bono partners provide legal assistance to refugees starting up small businesses.
Bronwyn co-ordinated a project for asylum seekers in the Hunter, where we worked with other organisations to help asylum seekers apply for temporary protection visas. This project involved more than 20 pro bono lawyers and many student volunteers. Bronwyn runs regular wills workshops for Aboriginal communities with assistance from our pro bono partners. Bronwyn is on the Board of Catapult, a performing arts group in Newcastle, as well as the Women Lawyers Newcastle Chapter, the University of Newcastle Law School Advisory Board, and the Department of Justice WDO Operations Advisory Group as well as supervising law students and graduates and volunteering in Myanmar, teaching clinical legal education at universities in Yangon, Taungoo and Myitkyina.
Sarah Ibrahim, Racial Justice Centre, NSW
The Director of the Racial Justice Centre, Sarah is an experienced commercial and human rights lawyer and a passionate advocate for racial justice and increased diversity within the legal profession. Sarah runs her own commercial law firm (Central Lawyers) and founded the Racial Justice Centre after seeing a substantial need for legal advice and public interest litigation to further the cause of racial equality in Australia. The Racial Justice Centre is a not-for-profit legal service that is currently run by professionals and students volunteering their time. Sarah dedicates many hours of her time on a pro bono basis helping communities and people in need. Sarah has successfully represented detainees on Christmas Island and Manus Island. She has successfully run many race discrimination cases. Sarah also teaches as a sessional academic in law and mentors women.
Claudia Maclean, Women’s Legal Centre, ACT
Principal Solicitor of the Women’s Legal Centre, a specialist legal service providing legal and non-legal support to Canberra's most vulnerable women, Claudia is passionate about trauma-informed family law practice and is committed to improving legal service delivery design. Since joining the Centre, she has developed and expanded the practice to meet the legal needs of women in Canberra. This has included developing a family law property litigation and an early intervention Child Protection practice. She has also developed innovative pro bono relationships with law firms to supplement the work of the Centre, and partners with other organisations to deliver intensive support and value to our clients in complicated legal matters.
Claudia is a representative of the steering committee for the Family Law Pathways Network Canberra, and a committee member of the ACT Law Society’s Family Law Committee and ACT Law Society’s Pro Bono Clearing House Panel. And is also currently chair of the ACT Legal Assistance Forum Child Protection Working Group, which works with stakeholder organisations to advocate for service and law reform in the ACT Care and Protection jurisdiction. Claudia's exceptional contribution to the ACT community through her impactful and tireless work has significantly increased the services the centre is able to provide for socially or economically disadvantaged people in the ACT and advanced access to justice for women in Canberra.
Sarah Smith, Duty First Legal Service, QLD
Having experienced her struggles as the wife of a Veteran, Sarah founded Duty First Legal Service, a community legal service for Veterans and their families and war widows to try to reduce the rate of suicide and personal crisis among Veterans and their dependents. Sarah is a mother to three children and works tirelessly to help the Veteran community by providing them with accessible legal services. Sarah volunteers her time to provide this assistance at a low cost or at no charge to clients in extreme need. Any fees received go back into the service to provide services for other Veterans.
Sarah has successfully assisted many Veterans with updating their wills, gaining legal access to their children, and finalising marital breakdowns legally. Many of her clients report having a "weight taken off their shoulders" after receiving this assistance. Sarah works closely with Legacy, DVA and RSLs to provide this support.
Daniel Wasiewicz, Northern Community Legal Services, SA
A senior solicitor at Northern Community Legal Services, Daniel is passionate about improving access to justice for those in need and are committed to the highest standard of legal assistance. We have helped thousands of disadvantaged and vulnerable South Australians in the North and Mid-North since our creation.
In his spare time, Daniel has been developing a tool that will assist members of the public to fill out their legal forms with ease. This is a very common problem his clients face, so this tool will help to reduce the overwhelm and help the public accurately prepare their legal documents in a more simple and user-friendly way.