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Help yourself

Help yourself

By Edmund Simpson

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Volunteering as a student or young lawyer can be good for your career and good for human rights.

Volunteers have long played an important role in the human rights legal sphere. In recent years there has been a substantial increase in the number of students and young lawyers offering their services, a greater variety of organisations offering volunteer opportunities, and a rising expectation that law students will have some volunteer experience when they graduate. While the benefits to the host organisations and their clients are obvious, law students and young lawyers stand to benefit greatly from volunteering as well.

Volunteers can participate in a range of activities including drafting, dealing with clients, advocacy and assisting in substantive policy submissions. And all of this is done while providing much needed assistance to often under-resourced organisations which protect the human rights of vulnerable people.

Personal experience

For the past two years, I have worked and volunteered part-time at a well-established specialist refugee and immigration legal centre, Refugee Legal.

The employment of a full-time volunteer coordinator in June 2015, and a move to much larger premises, has facilitated growth in the volunteer base from 120 to 400 active volunteers. Refugee Legal has also started conducting special clinics to assist asylum seekers to make applications for temporary protection visas under the federal government’s fast track assessment process. Some of these clinics are conducted with the help of commercial law firms and usually involve young lawyers from corporate firms obtaining registration as migration agents so they can help asylum seekers to complete fast track visa applications and make statutory declarations.

Lawyers and law students who are not registered as migration agents are able to assist with legal and country information research and other administrative work.

Stephanie McLennan, a second year lawyer at Maddocks and recent legal volunteer in the corporate clinic, said she decided to participate because, “it is a privilege to use the legal skills I have developed over my legal career to assist those who are the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society. Beyond this, volunteering has offered a great opportunity to increase and hone my legal skills. Volunteering has not been an additional burden to my work load, rather it has complemented my work and strengthened my professional development.”

Law Students for Refugees

Another innovative organisation is Law Students for Refugees (LSFR), an entirely student-run group that works on projects which promote the human rights of refugees. The executive of LSFR has five law student members and current membership is about 300, with a core volunteer base of 25-30 students. LSFR relies solely on the voluntary work of law students to develop, coordinate and complete independent legal projects.

LSFR recently completed a submission to the Senate Inquiry into conditions in offshore detention centres. The volunteers involved collaborated in writing the submission, working on it from its inception to its completion. As part of the project they filed freedom of information requests, analysed relevant data, coordinated the contributions of project members and drafted the Senate submission.

LSFR was founded in February 2015 by a small group of Melbourne University law students. Mason McCann, a founding member, believes law students hold a privileged position and should use their skills to assist those who are disadvantaged.

LSFR uses volunteers on an as-needed basis for particular campaigns. Mason said LSFR calls for volunteers when specific projects arise.

Benefits

Mason explained that a member of the executive will usually check work before it’s finalised. He also emphasised the particular value of law student volunteers: “One big advantage of having a pool of law students to call on for projects is that we can always be confident that people will know, basically, what they’re doing. Years of university mean that the written work we ask for is almost always high quality and well-researched to begin with”.


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