Improving access to justice and legal services is a major aim of the Wellington Community Justice Project (WCJP).
One way it is doing this is to assist people appearing in the District Court to access community services they need to turn their lives around.
The WCJP volunteers attend the District Court list courts on Mondays and Fridays and are available to help people with problems that may have led to their offending – problems that they need addressed.
The service they are providing is “awesome”, says Public Defence Service lawyer Leah Davison, who is duty lawyer supervisor for the Wellington and Hutt Valley District Court.
WCJP volunteers are helping defendants in need of practical assistance relating to their welfare.
“They are a bunch of extremely bright, switched on young law students who have a bundle of energy.
“Their skill set is very high. If you add to that the courage to get out there among people and talk to them and treat them like you’d treat anyone else, you’ve got a pretty exciting team.”
The WCJP service started in the Special Circumstances Court.
“What I’m trying to do is bring the practical assistance out into mainstream,” Ms Davison says, which is why the WCJP team is now working in the District Court list courts.
Matt Dewar came to talk to Judge (now Justice) Susan Thomas, Ms Davison and others at the District Court to see if there was anything the students could do in any way shape or form.
“At that point Special Circs was being developed. We pulled them in there initially, so that’s where it started.
“We don’t need them there so much now. We need them in mainstream [District Court], because the people in mainstream weren’t getting any assistance [before the WCJP volunteers began working there],” Ms Davison says.
WCJP leaders Ruby King, Fayez Shahbaz and Yousuf Ahmed gave LawTalk three examples of how the programme has helped people.
“One of our volunteers was very excited to tell us the story,” Ruby says.
A woman was facing charges after she had left a child locked in a car.
The reason she had done this was because the child’s father had died a few months earlier. That meant the woman needed to work, but couldn’t afford child care.
After talking with the woman, the volunteer worked with Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) to arrange a child care subsidy.
Another defendant a WCJP volunteer helped was a woman charged with petty theft. When the volunteer talked with the woman, it turned out that the reason she had stolen was because she did not have enough money. And the reason she did not have enough money was because her heating bill was very high.
The heating bill was high because of a medical issue, and the reason she was ill was because of her dependence on cigarettes and tobacco.
“We were able to work creatively on that situation,” Yousuf said. “We were able to negotiate with WINZ to get her an e-cigarette and also a subsidy for her heating bill.
“It was a win-win situation and it meant she was in a much better place,” he said.
Yousuf told the story of a youth “who was about my age … who had been living in a clothing bin for the last two years”.
He was in court for petty crime, related to the fact that he thought that he could not receive a benefit as he had no address.
All he needed to know was that temporary accommodation was sufficient to get a benefit.
“So it was a minor thing I could tell him about which could change his life, because he was able to set himself up with a benefit and he could then become a positive member of society.
“I think this example shows that it’s often small actions needed to help these people out,” Yousuf said.
What is happening time after time in the District Court, is people appearing, getting sentenced, but then appearing again and again because they have issues that remain unresolved, and that sets up a cycle of crime.
“What we are doing with this advocacy service in the District Court is trying to nip that crime cycle in the bud,” Ruby, Fayez and Yousuf say.
It is taking therapeutic justice practices, such as those used in specialist courts such as the Special Circumstances Court, and using them in the mainstream District Court.
Making a difference
“It’s nice to hear the volunteers talk about this,” Ruby says. “You can tell they’re really enthusiastic about what they’ve been doing.
“I think one of the things that is very exciting for me is that we get a lot of feedback from our volunteers after they’ve been in court, and they have received such positive feedback from the people they’ve helped.
“They feel they’re really making a difference.
“At the same time, they’ve gained a lot of skills themselves and they’ve become genuinely passionate about what they do.”
The eight volunteers on the Welfare Advocacy Project are Harrison Cunningham, Michaela Brus, Brigid Quirke, Rebecca McMenamin, Olivia Hyland, Madison Threadwell, Stephen Woodwark and Alice Wood.
The volunteers on this programme are selected following application and a series of interviews. They are then trained in providing the service, which is all about helping people get in touch with the relevant community providers that can help them.
Begun by Matt Dewar in 2014, and further developed by Tom Nelson and Yousuf in 2015, this programme has “really got up and running this year,” Ruby, Fayez and Yousuf say. “It’s really great.”
This initiative is just one part of the work WCJP does to enhance access to justice in New Zealand.
WCJP has four main areas of operation: advocacy, education, human rights and law reform.
This year, about 120 Victoria University law students, out of a total WCJP membership of more than 170, are involved in these four streams.
The work of the volunteers in the District Court is one of two initiatives under the “advocacy” banner.
Ruby, Fayez and Yousuf note that WCJP is not using the word “advocacy” in terms of providing legal advice or legal services.
It is advocacy in terms of using advocacy skills to help people, for example by linking people with service providers and by negotiating for people with agencies such as WINZ.
As well as the service in the District Court, WCJP’s advocacy service also assists in the Suspension Support Wellington Project, co-ordinated by Community Law Wellington, which gives parents advice and support when their child is being suspended from school.
This project encourages a co-operative approach that is beneficial to the interests of both schools and students.
The WCJP’s main education programme is the Rights Education Project (REP), which is run in conjunction with Community Law Wellington.
REP presents education modules to young people in secondary schools, alternative education providers and halls of residences. It educates youth about their legal rights and responsibilities within various aspects of the law and how to obtain legal help and advice.
The range of topics they cover ranges from employment right, human rights, rights around consent and cyber safety.
So far this year, the education team has made 50 presentations to schools, making this WCJP’s biggest project at the moment.
One major human rights initiative of the WCJP was the 2015 contribution to an international research project on violence against women run by Vidya Siri, an academic at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
The project required WCJP’s human rights team to produce a report on the status of violence against women in New Zealand. The team worked to secure ethics approval, conduct a literature review, and interview interested parties in the community. The result of their efforts was a 10-page report that is to be used as part of a global effort to push for the development of a draft international convention on violence against women. The project leaders thank Victoria University academics Dr Petra Butler and Professor Bill Atkin for making this project a success in such a short time frame.
“This is perhaps the WCJP’s most prestigious and successful project to date,” WCJP’s 2015 annual report states.
The human rights team also helped at drop-in sessions conducted by Community Law Wellington. This involved helping with refugee groups, and also helping individual refugees with things such as writing letters.
WCJP’s main law reform initiative has been helping organisations have a voice in Parliament by having a say on bills that actually affect them.
As well as helping organisations prepare submissions, WCJP provides information in plain English on upcoming bills, as well as submission templates to general members of the public who want to write a submission.
In the last year, the group has been involved in preparing seven submissions and the relevant select committee has invited them to present in person five times “which was very exciting,” Ruby says.
She was involved in two presentations – one on the Children in Hardship Bill and one on the Electronic Monitoring of Offenders Bill.
In addition, the law reform group worked closely with the New Zealand Animal Law Association to produce two comprehensive reports and briefed former Judge of the High Court of Australia, Justice Kirby, on the status of animal welfare in New Zealand.
Being involved with WCJP, Fayez says, “is, I think, a very valuable experience for the students. You can often get caught up in the dynamics of law school and the theory, and you can quite often get divorced from the practice. So it’s quite refreshing for the students to go out and have this practical experience – this knowledge of what’s happening on the ground.
“I think what makes the WCJP a bit different is that there’s a real buzz among the students that they want to give something back to the community.”
“I think you could say ‘let’s talk about an issue – you could have seminars and so on about it’. What makes the WCJP different is that all our volunteers get their hands dirty, and they are active within the community taking a bottom-up approach,” Yousuf said.
“It’s pretty incredible for us law nerds,” he says.
“What we are doing is making things that seem hard and inaccessible, accessible,” Ruby adds.
“It’s really ignited my passion for studying law.
“You can get swept away at law school with all the theory, but when you are actually out there working with people, actually making a difference, it kind of makes studying relevant, because you know what you’re working towards.
“You know why you’re studying law and what you want to do with it, and that’s to get out there and help people.
“I think we are in a really privileged position where we are in law school, and so I really, really want to use my skills to make a difference.”
WCJP is very grateful to law firm Buddle Findlay, who provide assistance to the programme and have done for a number of years, Ruby, Fayez and Yousuf say.
Proud to support WCJP
Buddle Findlay has been proud to support the WCJP for the last few years “because we see the great value it provides to the wider community,” says Buddle Findlay solicitor James Birt.
“We have been very impressed with the way in which the WCJP executive team has identified potential gaps in legal and educational services in the community and put programmes in place to attempt to address those gaps.
“The WCJP also provides an invaluable opportunity for students to hone some of the more practical legal skills whilst they are still at university,” Mr Birt says.