Helena Cook founded the Wellington Community Justice Project (WCJP) as a result of looking at options when she left law school.
“I never attended law school with the notion that I would do commercial law, but that was the model we were primarily sold. The marketing was around which law firm you could intern at.
“That didn’t appeal to me as the career I would like to follow, so I saw a gap,” she says.
“At the same time I was concerned that while what I was gaining at law school was academically robust – it’s a very good law school – it was not going to translate easily into real world experience if I was going to do something pragmatic straight out of law school.
“I guess I had twin objectives – my own legal skills, albeit limited, while still at law school and doing something that had social interest or public interest rather than merrily earning money for shareholders.
“So with that in mind, I started talking to community organisations. I had been working at Women’s Refuge for probably four years at that stage as a volunteer, so I was already well acquainted with some NGOs in Wellington.
“I started to have conversations with them about what law students could helpfully do, and gathered some like-minded students – I think there was 10 of us to start with – and we went from there.
“The whole organisation was about public interest and social justice, so the key component that kept arising – particularly out of my work with Women’s Refuge – was that the courts are, at least in a litigation sense, inaccessible and lawyers are inaccessible because of fees. And legal aid is not meeting that gap.”
So Ms Cook began thinking that perhaps law students could be of some help increasing access to justice. That was in 2009, the year before WCJP was launched.
Finding the gap
“Law students, of course, can’t do the job of a lawyer and we can’t profess to do that job either. We couldn’t provide legal advice or anything like that and quite reasonably so.
“So it was difficult to find the niche where there was the gap in resource that we could properly fill.
“There’s another organisation in Auckland called the Equal Justice Project (EJP).” [EJP is a student run pro bono initiative empowering communities to seek equal access to justice through education, service, and advocacy. It is entirely run and led by students from the Auckland University Law Faculty. EJP volunteers work with a range of practitioners, not-for-profit organisations, government departments, and the general public to increase access to the law.]
“I went up and saw them and had discussions about how their project ran and if we could translate any of the work they were doing up there into the Wellington context. Some of our ideas came from them. That was in terms of being closely aligned with the Community Law Centre. We also had a very good relationship with the Wellington Community Law Centre and they were a source of wisdom in that first year, when we were really ploughing the ground.”
After doing the groundwork, Ms Cook and her group of around 10 like-minded people developed the WCJP model ready for its 2010 launch.
“Judge [Andrew] Becroft launched it. He was our first speaker.
“We didn’t achieve a lot in that first year. In my mind it was all about – to use a metaphor – ploughing the ground for future leaders. We just wanted to make a solid foundation.
“I think it’s gone from strength to strength. From what started with such small beginnings, it’s really heartening to see people take the reins and carry it forward with such vigour.
“I’m so impressed by what people have done after what I did. What I did seems very small,” Ms Cook says.
The WCJP launch was in her final year of law school, and in 2010 Ms Cook graduated with an LLB and a BA in psychology.
Her role as WCJP founder would see Ms Cook awarded New Zealander of the Year Local Hero award for Wellington Region, 2010. She also won the Miller Award for outstanding contribution to social justice at Victoria University Law School.
From law school, she practised for five years as a prosecutor for the Health and Disability Commissioner. Then in February this year, she moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
“In its simplest form, I became a lawyer because I wanted to do something for other people. I still feel very strongly that I grew up in a privileged society where I received an education and I went to good schools and I had a good upbringing – and it’s my responsibility to give back.
“Not everyone has those privileges. I find myself now with a legal education, I’m part way through a masters. I think it is incumbent on me to give back. WCJP was the first of those thoughts,” she says.
“The other thing that you discover through the process is that legal advice is not what most people need. They just want someone to help them understand the system.
“The biggest satisfaction came from meeting people who you’d actually enabled to go through the legal process without even being a lawyer. It was great.”