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A day in the life of a community law centre

03 August 2018 - By Nick Butcher

At the Whitireia Community Law Centre in Porirua, north of Wellington, they have a saying: never use the Q-word.

That’s Q for quiet, and the law centre is anything but silent. The offices are small, overcrowded and typical of an area of legal services delivery that is in need of much more funding than it gets.

It has a virtual café quality to it where people of all backgrounds arrive with different requests from the law menu. There’s a modest bookcase sitting behind the reception desk area stacked with traditional law books, and the interview rooms are constantly in use, which is evident by the condition of the tired chair coverings.

Taia Herman, from Waikanae on the Kapiti Coast, works as a butcher. He and his wife and children come from remote Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean. One of the greatest challenges the island nation faces is climate change.

While Mr Herman and his family are on safer ground these days, living in New Zealand has brought immigration obstacles to overcome.

“Our visas were about to expire. We have finally been granted another year but there were issues that we had to work through. My wife works as a caregiver and her hours of work were not considered sufficient. The lawyers at the Community Law Centre saw corners that we did not see. If we had tried to sort this out ourselves we would not be living here,” he says.

Why community law?

Michael Fitzgerald is a lawyer at the Community Law Centre. He was admitted in September 2017.

“I was interning here while I was studying for close to 18 months and began working full-time once I finished at law school.”

The staff at Whitireia Community Law Centre

For Mr Fitzgerald the work is very personal.

“You have an opportunity to form some really nice connections with people who are really in need of help. Quite often we get people coming in here who, to a trained legal mind, their issues might not be that complex but there is real value and utility in the work that we can do to help them,” he says.

He represented Taia Herman and says being able to provide some relief to the stress that Mr Herman and his family was feeling is very rewarding.

“It’s difficult when New Zealand isn’t where you were born and raised and you don’t understand the system. It just adds another level of anxiety and stress,” he says.

Literacy is often a big hurdle for clients of the law centre.

“Literacy is a real issue. A number of people I’ve dealt have had bad legal outcomes because they have had little education. It’s those people that we can help so much by just talking through things,” says Mr Fitzgerald.

“Six months out of university and to be able to feel like I have achieved a positive outcome for a client through the action and work I did is a really rewarding feeling. It’s very important to me to know that I’m being useful and contributing something. I get an opportunity to have an effect on people’s lives by virtue of education.”

A great place to start

Community law centres, he says, are some of the best places for a law student or new graduate to get real experience, with real people.

“You get more contact with clients, more responsibility and more space to upskill and learn about what it’s like being a lawyer and serving your community. That’s what drew me here in the first place. You get to work on your feet. I get to represent clients at the Porirua District Court too.”

The sort of court work he does is mostly traffic offences, some family law work and sometimes low level assault charges. Much of the more severe crimes are taken over by legal aid lawyers.

So, chasing tall buildings with mirror windows and flash high-tech law offices is clearly not for everyone?

“It’s never been a goal of mine. What drew me to the law was being a skilled advocate and being able to represent people’s interests and achieve good outcomes. For me, that doesn’t require being in a corporate firm. Coming out of law school, if I could have written a job description for myself, it would be for this place,” he says.

But despite Mr Fitzgerald’s idealist good intentions, he is realistic and knows that he cannot do this sort of work forever.

He has a $92,000 student loan as he gained two degrees. Mr Fitzgerald earns less than $40,000 so it’s a far cry from what many lawyers would be prepared to earn.

“I don’t let it get to me. I don’t have a deep seated urgency about getting a high paying job, yet as a staff solicitor I earn a lot less than 40k. It’s not a glamorous position at all but the value comes in all of the other things I’ve mentioned,” he says.

Accessing community law is a means-tested service. The irony is that if Michael had legal problems, he would probably qualify for the free service.

Barrister sole the long-term goal

For Mr Fitzgerald, one of his long-term goals is to become a barrister sole.

“Coming into this job I thought that was something I’d not want to do, as I’m quite an anxious person but after standing up on my own two feet in the criminal court, that experience showed me that I could do it. A barrister, Brett Crowley, told us during the introduction to criminal legal practice about his experiences and how, after many years, he still gets nervous. It gave me a lot of confidence,” he says.

Niuholo Leupena is from Tuvalu. Her mother has permanent residency in New Zealand following a five-year battle which the Whitireia Community Law Centre took on.

That fight was led by Jessica Sebastian, who is the Managing Solicitor at the law centre.

Ms Leupena says she became aware of the centre through her pastor at church.

“He brought me in. I would not have known otherwise. There were many times when I was losing hope but Jessica said things would be okay,” she says.

Miss Sebastian has been working at the law centre for about five years. These women are from completely different backgrounds but none of those differences matter, and the two get on with each other like old friends.

“Niuholo’s case was very difficult. We had to go down several legal avenues with Immigration New Zealand. Her mother started off as an unlawful resident. When we received the residency visa, we all cried, we were so happy,” she says.

Ms Leupena’s mother hadn’t been subjected to a deportation order but that was a possibility.

The battle for residency took hundreds of hours and the cost of a private lawyer to do that work was out of Niuholo Leupena’s reach.

“Every application we made included a submission piece and we dealt with several case managers. One visa application took nine months for Immigration New Zealand to consider. We fought for everything with our fingers crossed,” she says.

Jessica Sebastian, who was admitted in 2013 after completing her studies at Victoria University, says there is no typical day as such at the Community Law Centre.

“Generally we don’t know who could come through the door. It could be immigration, consumer, tenancy, employment and our level of involvement depends on the seriousness of the matter,” she says.

Expect the unexpected

On the day of the interview for this story, the centre was served with a deportation notice for one of its clients, without warning, and Miss Sebastian says that unpredictability is normal.

“We hadn’t even poured a coffee before that happened, so that’s at least two hours’ work. It’s not uncommon for people to tell us they’ve tried every family lawyer who are already busy, and ask us for help with a protection order issue,” she says.

At the other end of the scale it could be a simple affidavit to be sworn or explaining what a tenancy agreement means and a person’s rights.

“We have a saying that when a day does appear quiet and we are focusing on the administrative work, no one is allowed to mention the Q-word because as soon as you say ‘it’s quiet’, suddenly the reception area will be full of people.”

Miss Sebastian is heading to Berlin in August where she will pursue her Masters in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. She’ll study at a university in Frankfurt (Oder), 80km away, and commute there by train.

“A lot of the programme is geared around refugee and immigration law and that’s my focus. Doing Niuholo’s case with regard to her mother changed my life. She was the type of person I always wanted to help and she really made me value that practising certificate and my position as a lawyer because I could use my skills to make a huge impact on someone’s life,” she says.

Her long-term goals are to be involved in legal work with the United Nations or the European Convention on Human Rights.

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Last updated on the 3rd August 2018