What started as a lunchtime seminar in a Christchurch law firm was soon to transform into an international partnership with three lawyers travelling to Vietnam to advise an NGO dealing with victims of human trafficking and domestic violence.
It was an unlikely but very real experience which for that firm has redefined the boundaries of where lawyers can add value.
Let me explain. Hagar is a global charity established in 1994 in Cambodia. It has grown to have funding offices in Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Hong Kong. Its operations take place in Cambodia, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Singapore and Myanmar.
Hagar’s tagline is “the whole journey”. This reflects the nature of work that they carry out with their clients. Hagar’s clients are victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse or human trafficking. Hagar is committed to the restoration – insofar as far as is humanly possible – of people who have suffered some of the worst treatment at the hands of other people. This involves a combination of psychological support as well as initiatives to economically empower individuals to control their future destinies. Another aspect of Hagar’s work is supporting their clients through domestic legal processes.
And so it was that during one afternoon in March 2017, Hagar was giving a presentation on its work at Parry Field Lawyers. It quickly became apparent that this was not the ordinary lunchtime seminar, inconveniently distracting fee earners from more pressing matters, such as the Bright Line Test or AML/CFT.
The question that many of us were left with was how we, as legal practitioners, could support the worthy work of Hagar – and not just with the usual financial support, but by applying our training and expertise in a meaningful way. In short, how could we add value?
Seeking to add value is critical in all professional services. It defines the limits of our professional utility, and where that of another begins. And this was ultimately the vexing question for us as we pondered whether a lawyer from New Zealand could contribute in any meaningful way to law-related issues in a totally foreign jurisdiction.
We decided that the only way to find out was to try. So, working with Hagar Vietnam, we identified some of the key issues they were encountering. Two key opportunities emerged:
- Evaluating the extent to which Hagar’s existing legal support systems prepared their clients for interacting with the domestic legal system; and
- Identifying opportunities to improve these systems.
There were some obvious concerns, ie, how could a group of foreigners better identify opportunities for legal advocacy?
On the other hand, there was clear overlap with skills with which all lawyers are equipped: problem-solving, research and connecting with other spheres of expertise, where required, to achieve an outcome for a client.
With that in mind, in November 2018, three lawyers from Parry Field travelled first to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The trio consisted of a civil litigator, a commercial lawyer and an immigration lawyer. Hagar’s Phnom Penh office was the first operational office the organisation opened. It is there that Hagar’s legal advocacy arm is most developed and it served as an exemplar of how this sort of advocacy, done at its best, could make a real difference to some of the most vulnerable members of humanity. The set-up was impressive, designed specifically to insulate victims – often children – from re-traumatisation that can occur when judicial proceedings commence.
The main part of the secondment took place in Hanoi, Vietnam. Over the course of the next 10 days we interviewed Hagar staff, local lawyers, local and international NGOs supporting the victims of trafficking and domestic violence, Vietnamese government officials, representatives from UN-backed entities, as well as diplomats from various overseas missions.
And the result?
After conducting interviews with staff from over 18 organisations connected with anti-human trafficking efforts together with interviews from parents of trafficking victims, we were able to report back to Hagar on the concrete ways it could provide better legal support for its victims.
One of the most satisfying and peculiar aspects of the secondment was the number of doors that were opened to us simply by virtue of the fact that we were a group of New Zealand lawyers trying to conduct research into legal practices in Vietnam.
A second benefit of our trip was being able to add value by defining what best practice can look like, in relation to witness and victim protection.
Finally, there were a number of areas which, despite such foreign legal systems, bore striking resemblance to issues litigants face in New Zealand such as practical difficulties with the enforcement of judgments, and conceptually similar regimes relating to domestic violence (albeit with significantly different outcomes and practice).
Kiwi lawyers can make a difference in some very different legal jurisdictions.
Alex Summerlee firstname.lastname@example.org is an Associate with Parry Field Lawyers in Christchurch.