This initiative enables ACU law students to undertake pro bono work and assist unrepresented asylum seekers at the Federal Circuit Court in Sydney.
The program was created in 2018 when member of the NSW Bar Council, Victor Kline, reached out to ACU’s Deputy Head of Thomas More Law School Associate Professor Catherine Renshaw and National Lecturer in Charge (Pro Bono) Dominic Cudmore.
Victor was thinking of ways to help the thousands of rejected asylum seekers who arrived in Australia between 2012-2014, whose cases had been scheduled for a re-hearing.
"In any society the most marginalised people, the most needy, are the people who aren’t citizens. They have the least rights or resources to seek legal help,” Catherine said.
Victor made a unique proposal - that ACU law students attend court to assist asylum seekers waiting to have their application reassessed. While law students cannot offer legal advice, they can assist with reviewing documents and identifying legal details that can help strengthen grounds for appeal. The students then give their recommendations to a group of pro bono lawyers, who can quickly assess the applications, assess their merit, and then represent these cases in court.
"When the Law School was founded in 2014, we really wanted it to be distinguished by having a global, practical and ethical approach to law. This project proposal really addressed all of those points,” Catherine said.
However, law students do not usually participate in court processes, so Victor needed to advocate at a high level to gain permission from the NSW Chief Justice to enable this innovative project. Luckily, support was granted, and the project has also attracted the patronage of former High Court Justice and previous Governor-General of Australia, Sir William Deane.
Dominic says preparing the law students to work with asylum seekers is an essential part of the project. Students attend a series of lectures covering court protocols, the legal technicalities of refugee law, confidentiality and duty of care.
The program is also a really good opportunity for students to receive feedback on their work from some quite senior members of the legal profession.” Dominic said.
Around 20 ACU students have participated to date. Armed with a pamphlet translated into 15 common languages which explains who they are and how they can help, the students work with court translators to assist the asylum seekers.
Catherine says this gives students the opportunity to exercise their professional skills, and they are challenged to go above and beyond by the needs they see.
"The students have to be persistent to obtain papers from and for asylum seekers. There’s often a language barrier and there can be trust barriers. The students also need to write to government solicitors to obtain documents and deal with high-profile law firms.
To date, ACU law students have made over 40 recommendations to the panel of pro bono barristers. A number of appeals have been lodged based on these recommendations, and there have already been some successes, including preventing deportation of an asylum seeker and arguing on the grounds of fairness.
"It is wonderful to see what this project does for the students, in giving them an experience that will make them future great lawyers of service,” Catherine said.
The team has enjoyed watching many of students grow in confidence and really throw themselves into the work.
"One of our students is from a refugee background himself. He took on many more cases than he was required to, and his work was fantastic. He was awarded the inaugural 2018 Rebecca Allen Prize in recognition of his work,” Catherine said.
Dominic hopes the project will become a permanent feature of the Thomas More Law School. Discussions are underway about expanding the project to Melbourne, which has the second largest population of asylum seekers in Australia.
"The most rewarding part of this project has been seeing such a young law school do something so important, so quickly. It’s a great sign for the future.” Dominic said.
Some of the prize money from this award has been donated to provide ongoing support for the Refugee Law Project.