As law students, our greatest assets are our idealism, energy, and passion for making a positive difference in people’s lives. However, given the nature of law school and the constant grind of assignments and tests, it can be easy to lose sight of why we chose to be a part of the work that the Equal Justice Project does to help make the law more accessible to all members of our society.
It is for this reason that we decided this year to hold our first ever annual EJP Hui, which would serve as equal parts inspiration and practical skills training. We were lucky enough to have a truly stellar lineup of speakers, and were delighted and humbled to see so many of our volunteers give up their valuable Saturday afternoon for a day of workshops, presentations, and pizza.
We led off the day with a workshop on effective ways to work with young people by YouthLaw. Despite being relatively young ourselves, it was good to remember that teenagers are going through one of the most uniquely confusing phases of their lives and special care needs to be taken when engaging with their issues. Our instructors from YouthLaw work with these teens and young adults every day, and were able to impart some wisdom as to how we can advise and give guidance to young people without coming across as overly paternalistic. The biggest takeaway from the workshop was the importance of empowering young people to make decisions by themselves. We can work to provide advice and present young clients with their best options, but ultimately to make a lasting and sustainable impact it is necessary to ensure that young people come away from our interaction with greater confidence in their own judgment. Sometimes the clients that YouthLaw deals with are very vulnerable and unsure of how to deal with conflict situations. With such clients, simply instructing them what to do may help resolve that particular issue, but empowering them to make their own decisions will help them to learn how to deal with similar situations which arise in the future.
Next we heard from Judge Lisa Tremewan of the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court (and recent recipient of our Equal Justice Award). It was tremendously inspiring to see and hear what a real and tangible difference that the law can make to improve not just the society that we live in, but also those who society had long ago given up on. While the rest of our Hui was about learning and improving practical skills, Judge Tremewan imparted upon us the importance of keeping alive our idealism. Armed with the conviction that the way that we are currently punishing offenders is failing our society, Judge Tremewan introduced a truly revolutionary and ground-breaking approach to dealing with the causes of criminal offending. A solely punitive approach to dealing with offending merely perpetuates the cycle of offending and moreover normalises imprisonment in those communities, thereby robbing the punitive sentence of its deterrent effect. On the other hand, what the Alcohol and Drug Treatment Courts do is to truly engage with these offenders. For the first time in many of these offenders’ lives, the court provides an avenue through which they can take tangible steps to break their cycle of offending. The immense success rate of the programme in reducing criminal offending shows that idealism and empathy have a place outside of university in the “real world”. The very act of trying to connect with these offenders at a personal and human level has been arguably one of the biggest contributing factors in its success. As such, no matter where our careers take us, as EJP alumni we must keep our values of equality, compassion, and fairness to whatever we do and try to apply these to problems we encounter.
After a short break for afternoon tea, we heard from Ben Finn, who works as a Crown prosecutor for Meredith Connell. Ben provided a fascinating insight into advocacy at the High Court and District Court level. On top of shedding light into his job for anyone who might be interested in pursuing a career in litigation upon graduation, he was also able to provide some practical tips for those in attendance who had moots or the criminal sentencing submission coming up at law school.
Finally, we heard from Paula Bold-Wilson from the Waitemata Community Law Centre for a presentation on cultural sensitivity. While many of our volunteers certainly have a sophisticated understanding of the various social, legal and political factors which contribute towards the disproportionate overrepresentation of Maori and Pacific Island offenders, it is also true that many of our volunteers simply do not share the same background or upbringing as many of these clients. While illustrating the low level of trust that Maori have of lawyers, Paula explained what steps we can take to ensure that we are able to earn that trust and demonstrate that we are on their side. Paula’s presentation also served as a reminder to maintain an awareness of cultural diversity, and respond effectively to a diverse range of clients, as we volunteer with EJP and practice in our careers.
Our vision for the Equal Justice Project is for us to build a network of like-minded volunteers who want to make a real difference in people’s lives, and to ensure that we exercise our great privilege of studying and practicing law in a responsible manner. We want to inspire through our work a set of pro-bono ethics which stay with our volunteers for the rest of their careers. We hope that this and future Hui are able to up-skill our volunteers, but perhaps more importantly, also act as a way to recharge our batteries and help us remember why we do the work that we do.
Thank you to all of the volunteers who came along and made it an enjoyable event, and of course also to all of our speakers who graciously took time out of their Saturday to attend the Hui.
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