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Long road to justice

News

Cite as: December 2012 86 (12) LIJ, p.26

A group of Melbourne lawyers took an eye-opening tour to Cambodia where slavery is still rife.

Just one week after the death of former Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk on 15 October 2012, a delegation of 21 Australians, including Corrs Chambers Westgarth partner Heidi Roberts who is national manager of the firm’s pro bono and community program, arrived in Phnom Penh for a three-day justice tour.

The tour was arranged by Hagar Australia, part of an international organisation that works to restore the lives of women and children who are the victims of human trafficking. (See June LIJ, “Seeking justice”, p21 http://tinyurl.com/aoduqrb)

Hagar Australia CEO Kate Kennedy said: “It’s in a weakened legal framework that modern slavery can thrive. It is where the letter of the law is not being upheld.”

The tour included an overview of the legal and protection services Hagar provides, including discussions with leaders of Hagar’s Phnom Penh legal protection unit that works to support the prosecution of offenders and afford justice for the victims and to prevent it happening again.

Ms Roberts said:“I felt that Hagar, being a new entity in Australia and its focus on human rights in the region, was the right fit. I wanted to come and find out how much more we can do in partnership with Hagar.”

Meetings with senior Phnom Penh legal figures on the justice tour included an overview of the local legal landscape in relation to human rights law with Billie J Slott, counsel at leading Phnom Penh commercial firm Sciaroni & Associates; a review of AusAID funding to Cambodia with AusAID counsellor Megan Anderson; and a private viewing of the new First Instant Court and Prosecutor Building that included an opportunity to see first-hand the essential children’s waiting room that will be standard in this new courthouse model for Cambodia, where many of Hagar’s clients’ cases are heard. (Previously, young victims of human rights abuse involved in cases had to wait outside the court in the same seating areas as the accused.)

The tour also highlighted opportunities for collaborations between Australian and Cambodian lawyers and greater involvement in international efforts to reduce human trafficking. At the conclusion of the tour, Ms Roberts was clear that there was significant scope to extend Corrs’ partnership with Hagar beyond supporting its Australian business operations.

“We will be working to support the legal protection unit in Phnom Penh, to develop their capacity to support the victims through the prosecution process and access local laws to protect victims,” she said. There is also scope to service Hagar International’s needs for corporate legal advice through Corrs’ international network of firms.

Corrs partner John Tuck, another tour delegate, highlighted the lack of resources in Cambodia that prevents the system and its laws from operating effectively. “For Hagar, ensuring that the guardianship laws can be effectively accessed, that’s the number-one challenge,” he said.

Ms Roberts plans to tap into the professional and vocational skills of the entire Corrs organisation, rather than just the legal team, on the Hagar collaboration. The non-legal staff “want to contribute to social development and use their skills in kind as well,” she said.

Melbourne barrister Hilary Bonney ran workshops for Hagar staff. “The practice of law can be very insular and repetitive and we forget the power that law has,” she said. “Going on a trip like this has opened my mind once again to the ways in which I can practise my profession with meaning.”

The intense itinerary allowed the delegation insights into Hagar International operations, including the restaurant staffed by former clients as well as its model of client care – its commitment to its clients who have suffered the worst human rights abuses.

There was one standout experience of the tour for Ms Roberts – a pizza party with the Hagar Shelter staff, house “mothers” and boys from the transitional care program. “Up until then it was all a bit academic, and to sit down and have pizza with little boys the same age as my children, having only a tiny understanding of what they have been through, made it all clear as to what we are really doing. To see how happy they were, to see how well cared for they are – it all hit home for me. It’s not academic any more. I can feel and know that working with Hagar, Corrs can make a difference.”

There are plans for further justice briefings in Melbourne from delegates who attended the tour. To donate or for more information go to http://www.hagaraustralia.org.au/give/ways-to-support.

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