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August 1, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Getting Amongst – The Wellington Community Justice Project

I am a commercial law shark. I am a commercial law shark.
I am, I am,
I am.

Or so my flatmate attempted to convince herself before her interview at a Wellington law firm last month. The law world is often associated with multistorey office buildings, tailored suits and ruthless courtroom cross-examination. But what if you didn’t always have to be the shark? What if students were able to successfully utilise their legal skills in areas beyond the commercial sphere? What if you could dig your teeth, so to speak, into some influential new legal projects? Imagine if five arduous years of student poverty and gargantuan course notes could result in tangible benefits to the wider community.

Enter the Wellington Community Justice Project.

The Wellington Community Justice Project, or WCJP, is a student-led organisation at Victoria’s School of Law. The Project matches law students with local legal volunteering projects, providing them with vital experience in four main areas; Education, Advocacy, Human Rights, and Law Reform. While there have always been opportunities to gain community-based experience, the WCJP aims to make these more easily accessible to the student body.

Working alongside existing legal organisations, this group of passionate and dedicated students aims to explore new avenues for student involvement and to address areas of society which are often overlooked by the current legal system. WCJP co-director Emily Bruce insists that while commercial internships are extremely valuable, community-oriented experience is equally important. Even for law students who envisage a career at a commercial law firm, volunteering with the WCJP offers insight into the role and practical application of law in the community. Having received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response, WCJP is already making a positive impact on the Wellington community.

Salient spoke to Emily about the project’s origins, current initiatives and future goals.
How did the Community Justice Project come about?

A student Heléna Cook (who has now graduated) came up with this idea in 2009 after going along to a conference on human rights, where it occurred to her that we were missing something like this. Another ten of us then joined her to form WCJP in 2010.

Was it an entirely student-led initiative?

Heléna, and a team of ten students who formed the committee. It was mostly student-led, but we have a team of interested faculty members who acted as a board who helped us out at the outset, ensuring that our plans were viable and that we had the support we needed from the university. We also had one (and now have three) staff members on the committee itself. They themselves all have background and interest in community law issues. It’s been awesome having them.

What projects are currently underway?

Law Reform is continuing to work alongside community organisations, assisting with research surrounding the law and the drafting of submissions. One big project they have been involved with is helping Adoption Action Inc start civil proceedings regarding consistency of the Adoption Act 1955 with the Human Rights Act and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. They are also in the process of creating informative seminars on the elections and the MMP referendum, which they will then deliver to young people all around the Wellington region.

Education is continuing to work on the YEP (Youth Education Project) alongside the Wellington Community Law Centre. They are delivering modules on areas of the law such as tenancy, employment and consumer issues to young people, with a focus on presenting to industry training organisations. So far this year, they have already presented at Massey University and the Salvation Army and have several other seminars lined up for the rest of the year. They are also hoping to present their module on tenancy to university students.

Advocacy is involved in several new projects (and continuing several old ones too).  Student volunteers have been trained by the Restorative Justice Trust to be advocates for restorative justice in the courts, and are now doing this.  Other volunteers are helping to set up and will eventually volunteer for the new Howard League for Penal Reform in Wellington.  Students are working at the Whitireia Community Law Centre in Porirua and the Innocence Project New Zealand (which deals with past potential wrongful convictions) too.  Our project managers are also currently researching a potential opportunity for students to be trained to and to advocate for students before school boards of trustees.

Human Rights is continuing to work alongside the Human Rights Commission on Policy Review, Litigation and Select Committee Report Projects.  They have recently completed the first stage of their research work on the Migrant Workers’ Convention.  They are also assisting anti-human trafficking charity Justice Acts New Zealand with research work and have created and submit regularly to a new blog on human rights (WCJPhumanrightsblog.wordpress.com).

The WCJP is also investigating and preparing speaker events from speakers involved in community legal issues.  Steph Lambert from Justice Acts New Zealand (along with her student volunteers) will speak to students later in the year on the research they have done into New Zealand’s anti-human trafficking laws.

What are some of the long term goals for the WCJP?

We’d firstly like to build and develop on the partnerships we’ve entered into. The more established these partnerships become, the more students will be able to do. We’d also like to make community volunteering an even more viable option to law students by increasing the number of projects we have and the number of students we’re able to accept, as well as looking into different ways our students can get recognition for what they do in return.
We’d also like to build WCJP as an organisation in the community, and get as many people in the legal world involved as we can. This could mean, for example, involving law firms and their pro bono teams in the work of WCJP. Already this year we have Buddle Findlay helping us register as a charity, pro bono, which has been great. Finally, we’d like to build the educational side of WCJP: for example by running more speaker events from people involved in legal issues in the community.

Who can get involved and how do students do so?

Law students from second year up. At the start of every year we hold a launch event, where we introduce the projects for that year. From there, we have an application process.

Interested? Have wonderful ideas for new projects, or keen to get involved in the Project next year? The WCJP will be holding their AGM to select 2012 committee members later this year- if you would like to attend, or have ideas to pass on, you can contact student directors Emily Bruce, or Adèle Taylor at studentdirector@wellingtonWCJP.org, or check out their website at wellingtonWCJP.org.

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