The Equal Justice Project’s pro bono initiative gives law students invaluable opportunities to gain experience while working on human rights projects in New Zealand.
The team offers support to practitioners, academics, interest organisations and community groups who share the charity’s goals of promoting equality, inclusivity, and human dignity.
“It’s a great way for students to foster their legal research skills for the future,” says Holly Edmonds, a co-manager of the Pro Bono team.
Senior students gain practical legal experience in researching for cases, conducting independent case studies, and compiling submissions to domestic and international committees. The team is comprised entirely of law students from the University of Auckland Law School who the co-managers say have demonstrated a capacity for high quality legal research and a dedication to protecting human rights.
“It’s also a good way to offer a practical component to the law degree which can otherwise be absent,” says Christina Laing, the team’s other co-manager.
“In the United States they mandate a clinical component to a law degree whereas in New Zealand we don’t have that. So, the Equal Justice Project allows students to put one foot in, obviously in a closely-monitored fashion, to the professional context and apply their academic work into a practical setting, which I think is very beneficial for them. And it also helps people build a good sense of community and develop friendships,” she says.
There are about 20 volunteers working in the Pro Bono team, as well as Ms Laing and Ms Edmonds.
The student volunteers apply for a one-year position and can return to the group to provide their assistance.
“You can be a part of the Project from the minute you start Part II law until you graduate,” adds Ms Laing.
The group is currently working with the mana whenua-led community group Save Our Unique Landscapes campaign (SOUL) which is working to protect land in Ihumātao, near Mangere in south Auckland.
Fletcher Residential Ltd has submitted a plan to build a low-density, high-cost housing development with about 500 homes on 32 hectares of confiscated Maori land. SOUL says the area earmarked for the new subdivision is adjacent to the Ihumātao Papakainga and the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve and is “unacceptably close to an urupa (Māori burial site), and it will destroy other significant archaeological sites and waahi tapu”.
“We have been providing legal research and analytical assistance on SOUL’s attempt to protect the rights of mana whenua,” says Christina Laing.
“One of the most important recent successes was when the Pro Bono team contributed to the Wakatu Supreme Court case (Proprietors of Wakatu v Attorney-General  NZSC 17) where the court found that the Crown owed fiduciary duties to indigenous people. The Equal Justice Project contributed legal research to that case with Associate Professor Claire Charters at the Law School. That was quite an accomplishment for us because it was such a public and important decision.”
The Project has also submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Children in conjunction with Action for Children and Youth Aotearoa, submitted to the Human Rights Commission on behalf of the National Foundation for the Deaf, conducted an independent case study on the New Zealand Immigration Profiling Branch, and completed individual case research for numerous barristers and academics.
Last year, volunteers worked on a project grounded in the issues surrounding refugees, their children, and their access to social services. The team also provided legal research in relation to the potential discrimination grounds and illegality of the Department of Corrections’ policies on transgender prisoners.
Another major project it has worked on was assisting former Judge David Harvey in his mission to provide improved access for self-represented litigants.