New Zealand Law Society - Kamil and Karun Lakshman

Kamil and Karun Lakshman

Kamil and Karun Lakshman

Kamil and Karun Lakshman came separately from Fiji to Aotearoa New Zealand. Both came for education. For Karun his pathway into the law was already in motion when he arrived in Wellington. For Kamil it would be a bit more time before she entered the legal profession. Both help others through their community involvement and their work, with Kamil having a particular focus on supporting migrants and refugees.

Our journey into the legal profession in New Zealand

Kamil: I grew up in Suva and came to New Zealand to go to boarding school. From there I went to university and have been here ever since. I actually started studying law but didn’t finish it until much later. I switched to a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in education and psychology.

After graduating I went to work for the Ministry of Education, a position I obtained after doing a two week stint in their file management team which was chaotic as the then Department of Education had been restructured to become a Ministry. In my exit interview I voiced the chaotic nature of the setup and how it could be solved which, probably now thinking back, sounded like music to the Manager’s ears (a lovely women). I was instantly offered a project position after which a permanent full time Executive Officer position was created in the Ministerial Unit and there launched my career in a completely different path from what I had set out to do.

The Ministry of Education was a wonderful employer and good to me for which I am ever so grateful. I was encouraged to undertake management qualifications including an MBA and within three years I was in middle management appointed as an Administration Manager with a large portfolio including overseeing the district offices just before I went on maternity leave with our first born.

It soon became apparent to everyone that I had reached my maximum output, the place was running smoothly and there were no challenges left. So, what next?

The first time I did Law I didn’t really understand much, it was like a foreign and alien language. So I thought it was unfinished business and I should at least give it another shot. I was allowed study-leave to undertake some papers as by then the Law School had shifted down from Kelburn to the old government building and the Ministry of Education had moved up to Pipetea Street. It was all very convenient and when I think retrospectively, interconnected. As a mature student it was much easier, and it all made sense.

After finishing Law and armed with the package of experience and worldly experience that was uniquely mine, I did not want a 9-5 job with a large firm. I wanted to find my path where my heart sang. That was difficult because it was a world of unknowns. I went to work for a protégée of Karun’s in Masterton as she gave me flexibility and mentorship. I would drive up the hill three times a week, a chore!

During one of those drives I stopped the car to vomit. I was pregnant! Our second son was eventually born. I did not know what to do because I wanted to spend time with him as he was a precious gift. There is an eight year age gap between the two boys.

I opened my consultancy which I called Idesi. It was named after my grandfather, C P Bidesi with the B dropped. He was a politician, one of the longest standing city councillors of Suva after Fiji gained its independence, then a Senator and a Deputy Mayor of Suva and a people’s advocate who never shied away from being a voice for individuals who were not being heard. He had no fear. It seemed like the most appropriate name because it conveyed the sentiments and the ethos that was to follow with the commencement of Idesi Legal.

The obsession with undertaking and completing a law degree was because my father, Ravindra Nath was a lawyer, but I had never had the chance to know him as he passed away prematurely when I was just three months old. He was only 29 years of age, a Christchurch law graduate having commenced his own practice in Nadi with two other branch offices. I didn’t know how to connect with him, so I thought maybe this is the way to do it. I wore his gown to my admission ceremony which was incredibly special. Karun now wears the gown when he appears in court.

Karun: I was born in Suva and grew up in Labasa and returned to Suva for high school. I obtained a full boarding scholarship at the University of the South Pacific (USP) where I did preliminary law papers and spent two of the best years of my life. I then came to Victoria University of Wellington where I did my undergraduate degree, my professionals and a Masters degree.

While doing my professionals I worked as a law clerk for Russell Buchanan who had started his own common law practice – what we now call litigation. I knew then that that was my preferred area of practice. After I was admitted to the bar I worked for Russell as a staff solicitor.

I went back to Fiji in 1986 and was fortunate to get a job with the well-known firm Munro Leys & Co in Suva.

I returned to New Zealand in 1988, after the military coup in Fiji in 1987. I managed to get a job with Goddard Oakley Carter & Moran at their Lower Hutt office. Eventually I re-joined Russell Buchanan, in partnership as Buchanan Lakshman. From there I moved to the bar.

I will always be grateful to Russell for the opportunity and help he gave me.

Our meeting in Wellington

Photo of Karun Lakshman
Karun Lakshman

Karun: I spent all my university years at the university’s original hostel Weir House. I became a deputy warden and enjoyed my time there very much.

Kamil: He’s being very modest – he was such a good member of the team there that he was made a life member of the Weir House Residents’ Association. Not many people ever got that!

The hostel is where we met. Although not long after meeting, Karun went back to Fiji so we were in different countries for a while. He actually proposed over the phone! The coup had occurred. I went over and we got married before coming back here and setting up our life here together.

Even though we are both from Fiji we may never have met in Fiji and so it is rather ironic.

Sharing a passion for helping others

Kamil: One of the reasons I established Idesi was after working with migrant women through a voluntary organisation I set up when I returned to Law School called Mamta. This was an Asian Women’s Support Group and was set up following a suggestion by Karun.

Karun: I started getting male clients from the migrant ethnic communities who were charged with domestic violence offences. Whether my clients were guilty or not, it was obvious that there were underlying problems in the marital relationship and that the wives had little if any help and support. I could not help the wives as they were the complainants. So I mentioned this to Kamil.

Kamil: I could see the social issues underlying those complaints and could understand the challenges these women were going through having moved from very different societies to New Zealand. The value system was different, in western countries like New Zealand we operate from a rights base paradigm whereas most of the countries these ladies came from were from a role base paradigm.

Many issues existed – identity crisis, management of expectations and just the stress associated with moving and coming to a country where the culture and ways of doing things are not understood. It was not that the services were not available, the issue was access to the services, that is where the gap was. We were able to speak to those women and put them in touch with services they didn’t even know existed.

Although it was a woman’s group, they always came to ask for help for their husbands! One of them was an immigration case – he had syphilis and couldn’t get a visa. I took it on, and I got him the visa. His wife said, you’re very good at this, why don’t you do it for a living!

Another lady – her husband had issues with his boss not paying enough, now coined migrant exploitation. I took that case to mediation with a successful outcome.

So Idesi was founded, at first as a consultancy and then later on as a law practise based on those two areas of the law, Immigration and Employment, although it was really the Immigration practice that took off and then Refugee Law was added even though in Masterton I dealt with a very long running and complex Refugee case which was won, in fact it was my first case. I am a legal aid provider for Refugee and Residence Deportation cases.

Over the years Karun and I have had clients that have crossed over and we’ve been able to help them in different ways. That has been very rewarding.

Using the law as a force for good

Photo of Kamil Lakshman
Kamil Lakshman

Kamil: Immigration and Refugee work overlap. It is a very satisfying and meaningful field. It is not a case that for one to win the other has to lose. The most challenging and rewarding work is to overturn a declined decision or legalise an overstayer. It is solving a problem and finding the solution by understanding the history of the case. What went wrong and why. Then to develop a strategy to solve it. In some cases people have been very unfairly treated or circumstances and timing has not been their friend.

The motto is to keep going until someone will listen to the humanitarian circumstances that exist. The pen is the tool. It cannot be billed on a time basis otherwise you can’t do everything. So fixed fees give the clients a sense of certainty and for us we can spend as much time as possible without having to worry about the clock and pursue all avenues.

The humanitarian cases are the most satisfying as the voice needs to be heard and you are facilitating that.

To give you an example and I can give you many. I was sitting in my Auckland office that I had just opened and nobody really knew me. I got this phone call from a very young girl saying her grandmother was in the cells due to be deported and asking if I could help. I rang the compliance officer about the case and she said thank god you’ve called, she really needs help. They had rung around most of the immigration lawyers but nobody wanted to take it. I took it on and got it through. That lady is now a happy kiwi resident. She’d been here for 31 years mostly as an overstayer. That was a good feeling to help her.

There is a whole group of people that you never hear about living their lives in Aotearoa but without valid visas. Some of them have been here for decades. I’ve got a recent case where the client has been here for 30 years. He’s just been picked up as he was going into hospital and needed to show his passport and of course it was discovered he did not have a passport.

These are really good people, they’re in a very difficult situation. Sometimes you don’t know how you’re going to help them. But we have had many successes. Where you can help people who really need you – that means a lot.

Recently we were able to facilitate assisting an Afghanistan national get a visa after his cultural arranged visa had been declined and a day or two later the Taliban invaded.

Our refugee asylum seeker claimants are vulnerable and displaced so that is rewarding work particularly if it is failed Asylum claim and you able to turn it around and win at the Appeal stage.

Karun: For me my most important work was the writs of habeas corpus after the military coup in Fiji in 1987. Despite that being at the start of my career, it remains the pinnacle of my career.

The coup happened in May 1987. The firm I worked for, Munro Leys, had clients which included the Fiji Times newspaper and the University of the South Pacific. A number of people who challenged the military were taken into military custody. They included academics and journalists and Munro Leys was called upon to assist. Some lawyers including the president of the Fiji Law Society were also detained.

Fiji, like New Zealand and several other Commonwealth countries, had always had an independent legal profession and judiciary, based on that of the former colonial master – including appeals to the Privy Council. Fortunately, the military government did not immediately dismiss the judges after the coup; that happened later.

Fiji’s civil procedure was based on the (UK) White Book, so although we were in novel territory, it was a matter of following the rules, which required an ex – parte application and at least one affidavit in support – obviously from someone other than the detained person. I had to brief the evidence and prepare the papers in a hurry. I filed the papers in person. The registrar personally dealt with the matter. He was a fine person, committed to the rule of law but also a pragmatic and resourceful person.

I remember the first hearing well. It was a chambers hearing. The judge was understandably cautious, because he also was dealing with a novel situation. He asked me to go through the application and the law. When he was satisfied that the grounds had been made out, he issued the writ.

That was the easy part. The writ now had to be served on the military authorities. The writ commanded them to show just cause for the detention. If the military authorities ignored the writ, they would be in contempt of court and liable to be arrested. It fell to the registrar as the sheriff to serve the writ.

Fortunately for all concerned, at that point the registrar was able to take a pragmatic approach to the matter. He told me that he had personal contacts in the military and he asked me if he could first contact them to explain the legal situation and persuade them to release the prisoner without serving the writ. Thankfully I had the presence of mind to agree. The situation was resolved in that manner. A potential constitutional sub-crisis was thereby avoided. The same happened with the others who were detained.

I finally understood what the rule of law meant – until then an esoteric concept that I had not quite grasped despite being taught it by no less than the late Prof. Quentin-Baxter, the late Prof. Gordon Orr and Prof. Ken Keith (as Sir Kenneth then was).

This short period of my legal career was an incredible experience, especially when I was still a junior lawyer at the start of my career.

Maintaining connections with Fiji

Karun: Before the COVID-19 virus struck, we went back regularly to Fiji. We have family members there.

While there were similarities between Fiji and New Zealand which made it possible for me to fit into New Zealand society when I first came here, there were of course cultural differences. Now there is a strong Fiji community in Wellington, with fairly regular events.

Kamil: I have also been admitted to the Fiji bar as I wanted to use my father’s gown and be admitted where he would have been. That was special. I undertake volunteer work when natural disaster strikes Fiji. In the last 10 years many containers of goods have been sent to Fiji thanks to the generosity of the New Zealand people. In fact, in the last Appeal because it received media attention we were able to send five containers and had to stop because the container company said they could not supply us anymore.

Our children are first generation kiwis who have roots in Fiji but were born here – like many other children like them. It captures a whole host of identities! Our two children, Prashant 28 years old is a medical doctor and Siddhant 19 years old is currently studying.

In my opinion, I am an Indian, I am a Fijian, I am a kiwi and we all are human and spiritual beings! I think we need to focus on unity instead of the divisiveness that culture, religion, race brings. The law is the safekeeper and needs to ensure that there is no unconscious bias imbedded into our policies and our systems. We are the watchdog of the down-trodden otherwise who will be, that is the service as a profession we bring. We have to be mindful and vigilant of the narrative, of the stories we tell.

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