Few law students have the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of the most vulnerable in our society while still at university. But a group of Melbourne JD students has moved beyond classrooms and casebooks to facilitate justice for members of the community experiencing financial and social disadvantage.
The JD students have been supporting Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) by working with clients on the Special Circumstances List. They have been assisting in the delivery of legal services as part of the new subject, Public Interest Law in Practice. The program is the result of Melbourne Law School's commitment to providing students with experience in public interest law environments where they can develop skills through practical application of legal knowledge. This new range of clinical legal experiences adds to the Law School's well established program of internships.
"I found it both enjoyable and challenging to deal with real clients at Victoria Legal Aid," says JD student Fiona Hopkins. "I learned to communicate without legal jargon, in plain English, and to explain ideas without the vernacular I've been exposed to over the last three years."
Under the supervision of VLA lawyers, the students took instructions from clients with special circumstances facing infringement matters, prepared cases and represented their clients in court.
Appearing at the Melbourne Magistrates' Court confirmed third-year student John Alizzi's interest in both public interest law and advocacy and gave him a new perspective on the law in practice.
"There is a need to be flexible, to address the concerns of the judge as they arise rather than giving a comprehensive presentation. It was the law as a practical conversation with the court, clients and colleagues," says John.
Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative, Jo Kerr, says that students can provide a valuable community service through organisations in the legal assistance sector, while at the same time extending their learning.
"One of the challenges of a duty lawyer is appearing with less than perfect instructions. For students, this was a lesson in the imperfect nature of evidence. Something that students often don't fully understand in the classroom is that most law is conducted around uncertainty."
Third-year student Sasha Ponniah says that meeting a wide range of clients also gave her an understanding of the impact of the legal system on the lives of those most marginalised. "That was probably the highlight of the experience for me because it was just so confronting. You see people on the street suffering from mental illness or homelessness but you don't understand much about it until you speak to them and find out their story," says Sasha.
"Doing this program made me remember why I really wanted to do law in the first place. Nothing beats having that human aspect to the law, and you can forget that while you are at Law School. You can get caught up in reading case books and legislation and forget the people behind the issues."
For all the students, this placement has given them a greater understanding of the realities of professional life. "It was very revealing in a way as you got to see how under-resourced and underfunded the community legal sector really is but, at the same time, just how passionate and dedicated the lawyers working in that field are," says Sasha.
Fiona agrees: "While I felt challenged during my experience at VLA, it was incredibly rewarding, and one of my favourite experiences at Law School".
"I went into this subject wanting to get exposure to a real legal career. I knew that I wanted to help people in some way, and my placement at VLA has encouraged me to continue down this path," says Fiona.
the Melbourne Magistrates' Court: Anna Eleftheriadis, Orietta Surace, Rory
Hudson, Fiona Hopkins, Sasha Ponniah and John Alizzi
Photographer: Peter Casamento