Six months after the Christchurch mosque attacks, pro bono legal services continue to make a difference to families of the victims.
Lawyers in Canterbury have been involved in hundreds of pro bono cases involving families of the 51 people who died in the 15 March terrorist attacks.
The free legal work would be valued at thousands of dollars but that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the difference it has made to the people who come from a range of countries, including Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan.
The lawyer response
The Canterbury Westland branch of the New Zealand Law Society and Community Law Canterbury joined forces to generate a list of individual firms and lawyers that were able to offer pro bono services.
Community Law Canterbury says it was a privilege to assist the Muslim community following the terrorist attacks.
Community Law senior solicitor Louise Taylor, who is also an Adjunct Fellow at the University of Canterbury’s School of Law, says the community law centre is a large organisation with 20 staff solicitors.
“Many of us were working at Community Law Canterbury during the earthquakes and the feeling in the office was a bit similar – disbelief, fear and sadness. So we had something of a template to work from. Many members of our staff and student volunteer cohort speak multiple languages and were more than willing to put these skills to use to assist families.
“It’s difficult to think anything good could come from such a senseless act of hatred but we now enjoy very positive links with a part of our community we were perhaps less engaged with,” she says.
She says staff were present in the Welfare Centre which was set up the day after the attacks and until it closed three weeks later. The centre was created as a place for families of victims to meet, pray, grieve and listen to police briefings on the investigation.
“To gain trust with people we opted to have only four of our senior lawyers front this service so that they could build relationships with the families and organisations affected. This worked well and we now have very strong links with various community groups. These groups contact us regularly and we’ve been humbled by the gifts of food, invitations to events and other acknowledgements from individuals, families and organisations we have worked with.”
Changing legal needs
Ms Taylor says Community Law Canterbury lawyers spoke with hundreds of people in the welfare centre and in clients’ homes.
“Over the course of time the community’s needs changed as matters moved on from practical issues concerning identification and healthcare to matters such as immigration for victims and their families, ACC, employment, welfare, housing, family and other matters which stemmed from the events.
“Malcolm Ellis, manager of the Canterbury Westland branch of the New Zealand Law Society, put together a list of lawyers offering pro bono legal services and we referred many clients to those lawyers who have, no doubt, provided valuable services for both their immediate clients and the wider community. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the particular areas where this support was required was estate law and practice,” she says.
After the Welfare Centre closed, CLC opened around 50 individual representation case files, mainly in the area of immigration.
“We have, to date, resolved around 20 of these and one of our staff members continues to work full-time with clients and the community to settle the remaining matters. We have actively engaged with Minister of Housing Megan Wood’s office and various other allied support services to meet our clients’ needs. At this stage we cannot anticipate when these matters will resolve as we are dealing with governments in countries with very different legal and administrative systems to our own. We are also dealing with a number of clients who are now relying on ministerial discretion and this can be an unpredictable process to go through.”
Ms Taylor says the nature of the work has been emotionally hard on staff as it involves very personal situations where human loss has occurred.
“We’ve offered staff assistance through our Employee Assistance Programme. We’re very clear in understanding that if we do not look after ourselves and each other we cannot hope to look after anyone else effectively. We were lifted during the busier times, by gifts of food from the Muslim community.”
Large immigration specialist firm responds
One of the firms to offer help immediately was Lane Neave which specialises in, among other matters, immigration.
Partner Mark Williams says by the time the work is completed, the firm will have provided in excess of $100,000 in pro bono services.
The day after the attacks, Lane Neave was in touch with Immigration New Zealand. An agency hub had been set up at Hagley Oval (along with the Welfare Centre) where a range of services had converged to meet and advise families of victims. The location was ideal as it was close to Christchurch Hospital, where many people were being treated for gunshot wounds.
The hub included government organisations such as Immigration New Zealand and the Ministry of Social Development. There were also local services such as Community Law Canterbury and Victim Support at the hub. It operated daily for about three weeks.
It became apparent that legal advice was desperately needed so Lane Neave also set up shop at the hub.
“Initially we staffed it ourselves but given the opening hours and the length of time the hub was going to be running, it happened that the Student Volunteer Army President – Sati Ravichandiren – was clerking with our immigration team at the time. He got student volunteers to staff the hub and collect the information and documentation required for the families in shifts,” Mr Williams says.
About 20 mostly law students ended up volunteering their time.
“As you will be aware, the Student Volunteer Army came about in response to the earthquake, so again, they have mobilised and volunteered valuable assistance to those in need in their community,” he says.
Volunteer army haste pays
Sati Ravichandiren is in his final year of studying law at the University of Canterbury.
“People with immigration issues would come to the hub and our team would interview them. We would find out all of the essential information such as whether a person wanted to bring a family member into New Zealand, and how they were connected to the attacks at the mosques,” he says.
His team would explain to people using the service what the basic legal requirements were in New Zealand for emergency applications. The group was trained by Mark Williams in how to conduct the interviews and what information was required – such as a passport, birth certificate and formal identification for the person wanting to enter the country.
“We created a roster with two people on at a time for two hours and then two others would take over. By five o’clock someone from the law firm would stop by and pick up the forms which the lawyers could then continue to work on.”
For the students, this was an ‘at the coal face’ experience in what it could be like to practise law. Mr Ravichandiren says it was worth its weight in gold.
“It provided students with an opportunity to use their skills to help people. It was such a valuable experience because we got to use the skills that we’ve been trained in, which we’ve learned about for several years for a really positive cause. We got to take this out of the university and put it into practice. We were interviewing people who had been at the mosques, other people who had family members severely hurt or had lost family members. It was very emotional,” he says.
They all had to grow thick skin and he says the nature of what they were dealing with did hit them all hard.
“But talking about it and sharing our experiences helped significantly in dealing with this.”
More firms get involved
Mark Williams says it wasn’t long before other law firms started offering pro bono assistance because of the list created through the Law Society’s Canterbury Westland branch.
“We provided pro bono work to over 30 families with emergency visitor visa applications and in some cases there were multiple visa applications – up to four from an individual family. We had two solicitors working more or less full-time for about eight weeks on this work, in addition to two immigration partners managing workflow and dealing with more complex issues,” he says.
He says the help from the Student Volunteer Army was invaluable and often they worked with lawyers and Immigration New Zealand over weekends.
Mr Williams says the current tranche of pro bono work around the Christchurch Response (2019) is in the Permanent Resident Visa category.
“We’re now focusing our efforts on providing assistance to the more complex issues, such as special direction applications to the Minister of Immigration for the granting of residency to family members as an exception to the immigration policy.
“While a subsidy of about $1,250 was available from Immigration New Zealand to some people for assistance, in reality the value of the work undertaken to prepare a thorough special direction application ranged from $5,000 to $10,000,” he says.
The complexity of some cases
A lack of bona fide documentation to say who a person is – such as birth certificates – can be problematic. For example, Mr Williams says, there were challenges with people who had Somalian passports as they are not considered an international travel document.
“We’re working with the Red Cross and Immigration New Zealand to try and find alternative travel documents.”
There are also cases where someone has been left a widow(er) without any other family in New Zealand to support them and cases where surviving victims need long-term assistance to recover from both psychological and physical trauma. They have had family come to this country under emergency visitor visas, but they needed a longer period of time – in some instances permanently – to stay and help family recover fully.
“A lot of these people left alone in New Zealand come from refugee backgrounds and just don’t have established family networks here. We’ve drafted quite substantial submissions for government assistance for people in these exceptional circumstances,” Mr Williams says.
While lawyers soldiered on and did their work for people going through immense loss, the effect of the work on some of these lawyers was also a challenge.
“You’re dealing with people who are going through trauma. It’s difficult, particularly for some of our younger and less experienced lawyers. They’re listening to some terrible stories, including accounts from those who survived,” he says.
Mr Williams says their firm had lawyers working all sorts of hours, particularly during the first two months after the mosque attacks.
“The colleagues of people doing this work assisted with their case load while this was going on. There were a lot of late nights. There was a lot of great team work involved.”
He says they’re still receiving new pro bono work related to the terrorist attacks and it will be some time before their contribution is completed.