New Zealand Law Society - Yearning for a normal life with ordinary problems: immigration law for mosque attack victims

Yearning for a normal life with ordinary problems: immigration law for mosque attack victims

Yearning for a normal life with ordinary problems: immigration law for mosque attack victims

When asked to describe a professional highlight, Christchurch lawyer and immigration specialist Adele Mitchell says that her work with Christchurch mosque attack victims is something that she will look back on with pride. Earlier this year she received a letter from the Minister of Immigration thanking her for her work providing specialist immigration advice to those impacted by the mosque attacks, often free of charge. The Minister acknowledged how her work had eased the burden of stress and anxiety for those victims.

Adele feels that lawyers have a duty to do pro bono work, to ensure that all members of the community can access justice. She says “It has been a real privilege to have so many victims share their experiences with me. I am humbled by the trust they have placed in me.”

She says that many victims have survivor guilt, and that going through lockdown provided an enforced period of reflection, with some realising that they aren’t ok, and that they needed help. “There is a lot of trauma in the community, and for many that is only now coming to the fore,” she says.

Adele says that she found the stories of the widows the most affecting. “They have all wanted to remain in New Zealand and make sure their husband’s dreams for a life in New Zealand for their family are fulfilled, despite the fact that this country is where they were killed.” Inheriting their husband’s assets under New Zealand law also posed problems for many widows, as in their culture that money would go to their husband’s parents. “I have one widow who now has her sister in New Zealand with her as a temporary support and both have been under incredible pressure to marry, as they have very little freedom as unmarried women, even in New Zealand.” Adele’s job was to put the case to the Minister of Immigration that the widow also needed her parents here for support. She couldn’t make a choice between having her sister or her parents as she needed them both for support, and to ensure that neither woman was forced to marry before she was ready. Adele’s representation was successful, and the widow’s parents will be joining her soon. “That was a real learning for me, that we are all the same. Yet culture is a powerful thing.”

While many lawyers have to cope with the stresses of working with challenging material and situations, the aftermath of the mosque attacks came with their own layer of trauma. “Living in Christchurch we have come to realise that the worst things can happen to us. That can make you feel very vulnerable, and that the world is a horrible place.” Adele recalls meeting a client at the Hagley Cricket Grounds and being admitted by a policeman with a gun, which she found quite confronting. “I am a naturally empathetic person and so it is easy to relate to the suffering of others, but that can come at a personal cost. I am always learning and striving to be more accepting of my own efforts, however imperfect they may be, and prioritizing self-care. I’m getting better the older I get.”

Adele says that when working in a law firm on difficult cases, it can be hard to admit that you’re struggling. To take care of her own health while working with the mosque victims, she had counselling. “I haven’t shared that before. In a firm, you don’t want to show any sign of weakness, but I should have.” She says that she learnt very early on in her career working with refugees that it was important to be empathetic, but not emotionally invested. “To help others,” she says, “you have to put it in a bubble, and protect yourself.” Despite this, she believes that lawyers are a caring profession, and that those who embrace that will be successful.

Adele has recently set up her own practice, Adele Mitchell Immigration Law. She says that her family and friends had been encouraging her to take the step for a while, but she was conscious that practicing law on her own is not like setting up any ordinary business. Having all her professional networks in place before she made the decision helped, as did building trust and promoting her expertise through social media. “If there are new policies coming out from Immigration New Zealand, I try to get some information out quickly.” Having a successful Facebook page meant that her clients were able to follow her easily. Her advice to others is to do the Stepping Up course early, at associate level and paying for it yourself if you have to. ”It will get you thinking about your career and how you want to practice in future, whether that is in your current firm, another firm, or as a sole practitioner. Then do your numbers. Be realistic about your client base so you feel confident that the work will be there.” She cautions that there can be a lot more mental load when you go it alone, and says that despite it being tiring she enjoys the freedom of working from home on the days she doesn’t have meetings. “Last month, I managed to pay myself more than what I earned when I was in a firm, so that was a really tangible measure that I have made the right decision.”

Growing up, Adele says that she always thought she would be a teacher. But when she was at high school her father arranged some psychometric testing which indicated that she didn’t have the required patience to teach, but would be a good corporate lawyer. A year as an exchange student in in Japan strengthened her interest in other cultures, leading to studying law and languages at the University of Canterbury. She worked part-time at an immigration advisory company while she was at university, and then landed a role in a specialist immigration law firm upon graduation.

Adele says that deep knowledge and advocacy skill are some of the main advantages offered by specialist immigration lawyers, as opposed to immigration advisors. “There are many good advisors and some who have done law degrees, but as a specialist immigration lawyer I believe that we have the in-depth knowledge and legal advocacy skills that immigration advisors don’t tend to have. There is a lot more to the practice of immigration law than filling in forms.” In addition, lawyers offer the extra reassurance of having to meet the high standards of good character and the extra obligations that come with being a lawyer. “You have to be approved to practice on your own account, and there are rules around operating a trust account.”

Like many others in Christchurch, Adele’ s family home suffered earthquake damage, and it took many years for it to be properly assessed. With two small children, she says this was a difficult time, but made it easier to relate to her clients, who are stuck waiting for a decision on their residence application. “I remember thinking “I just want normal people problems” and that’s what my clients want too. To be given the chance to make a life in New Zealand, and only have to worry about paying their bills, being able to buy a house, or which school to choose for their children.”

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