By Daron Jacks
MLS students convert their legal training into community action as part of the Law School’s Public Interest Law Initiative.
It’s understandable that law students would yearn to get their hands dirty working in their future profession and gain valuable experience for when the time comes to enter the workforce.
It’s even more rewarding should that experience also help to create change and increase access to justice for disadvantaged members of the community.
Melbourne Law School Juris Doctor students have the opportunity to spend one day a week for a semester at the Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre in the Police Accountability Clinic assisting clients with complaints against police.
The Police Accountability Clinic is part of the Law School’s Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI). It aims to give students practical legal experience and provide the community with much needed additional resources for public interest law causes, particularly the provision of legal advice and assistance to disadvantaged clients.
Flemington & Kensington CLC is just one of several organisations that partner with MLS to provide clinical opportunities for students as part of PILI. Others include Victoria Legal Aid, JobWatch and Amnesty International.
In clinic, students engage with members of the community to investigate complaints such as verbal or physical abuse, or racial profiling by police. Under the supervision of a solicitor, the students provide advice, referral, support and casework for their clients.
Melbourne Law School Senior Lecturer and Director of PILI Kate Fischer Doherty says students work with real clients on real legal matters, and practise skills that are applicable in any legal workplace, including interviewing, legal writing, and dealing with clients and other parties.
Fischer Doherty says students are able to make a genuine contribution to the legal centre’s broader strategic project on police accountability. Casework statistics feed into the advocacy and policy work.
“Students gain a first-hand perspective on access to justice issues and strategies for law reform,” she says.
“Lawyers who work with our students also tell me that they value being able to contribute to the education and professional development of the next generation of lawyers.”
Police Accountability Lawyer and Clinical Supervisor Julian McDonald (BA 2008, LLB 2008), himself an MLS graduate, supervises students in clinic and says that the opportunity to gain practical experience is something he would have relished during his studies.
“I’ve been really impressed by their level of work,” he says.
“I think the students are really yearning to know what it’s like to be a lawyer and this is why the practical subjects are so useful – real cases, actual physical work and you get to touch a file.”
McDonald advises students entering the program to be open-minded as to what they might encounter, “because it’s not the sort of story you hear very often”.
“I have heard a number of students say ‘I can’t believe the police could do that’ and that sort of thing, so it’s also an important way of creating awareness in all parts of the community,” he says.
McDonald says students are heavily involved in every step of the process.
Students will help investigate complaints and gather evidence, including seeking CCTV footage and medical reports, freedom of information requests of police, interviewing witnesses, and keeping the client updated.
Once this stage is completed, students lodge the complaint on behalf of their client with the Victoria Police Professional Standards Command. Students attend police interviews of their client at the legal centre and follow up with police as the matter progresses.
“They are doing all the casework,” McDonald says.
While gaining practical skills bodes well for their future employment opportunities, for many students it is working with diverse clients and understanding their needs that has the greatest impact.
“The clinic experience can be quite eye-opening for students who haven’t personally experienced the kinds of disadvantage that many community legal centre clients face,” Fischer Doherty says.
“A major part of the classroom component of the course is encouraging and supporting students to reflect on themselves as future lawyers and the kind of lawyer they want to be – hopefully one committed to justice and to the role that lawyers can play in helping to build a fair society.”
Third-year student Nick Parry-Jones says the experience exposed him to issues he was not previously aware of.
“When you have a complaint against the police, who do you turn to? It’s a case of who watches the watchmen,” he says.
Fellow student Victoria Christie says the experience left her with a greater sense of social justice and the desire to carve out a career in the sector.
“The placement cemented in my mind that this is the kind of work I want to do,” Christie says.
"What I found really interesting was the policy side – the advocacy side.
“Down the track I’d like to work to change the way police interact with people in the community through improving the complaints system and advocating for better policies in this area.”
Fischer Doherty notes that the clinic aims to develop students’ professionalism and client-centred lawyering skills.
“These are skills and attributes that are absolutely fundamental to whatever area of practice they go into,” she says.
Parry-Jones says the relationship students build with a client is beneficial to both parties.
“As a student it was really good to feel that not only were we getting this great experience, that would help in a legal role, it was also empowering to feel that what we are doing makes a difference.”
Banner image: Students at the Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre. L-R: Nicole Mazga, Tarika Seneviratne and clinical supervisor Julian McDonald
Image credit: Méabh Loughnane
This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 17, May 2017.