Law students from The Australian National University (ANU) are voluntarily staffing a Canberra-based hot desk to help Kimberley Community Legal Service (KCLS) lawyers assist people with legal issues in the Kimberley region over 5,000 kilometres away.
The KCLS has offices in Kununurra and Broome, 1,000 kilometres apart, and its seven full-time lawyers are swamped with requests that far outstrip their capacity to respond.
The initiative is part of the ANU College of Law’s extra-curricular Law Reform and Social Justice Program, where students examine areas of law and work to try to improve them.
“Around 95 percent of clients of the Kimberley Community Legal Service are Aboriginal people struggling with very complex legal matters which can have profound negative impacts on their lives,” said Judy Harrison, Senior Lecturer at the ANU College of Law.
“Often its things like tenancy issues where living conditions may be appalling, child protection with Aboriginal children at risk of being removed, money problems and discrimination.”
The KCLS-ANU hot desk operates out of a small office in the ANU College of Law, with a telephone and three computers with email and skype. But the student’s paralegal work for KCLS lawyers has already made a significant difference.
“The clients that come to us often have multiple legal needs and they are usually the most disadvantaged and disempowered,” said solicitor Carol Wei of the KCLS.
“Since we have been able to receive help from the students in Canberra, it has made an enormous difference to our day-to-day work and enhances our capacity to provide a more effective service on the limited resources we have.”
The students work in two shifts per day covering business hours in Western Australia, undertaking legal research, preparing legal submissions and case material.
Georgia Fennel, a fifth-year law student, has been working on the hot desk since its inception. Her work for the KCLS lawyers has centred on the current WA Inquest into youth suicide.
“We’ve been going through two previous similar inquests and their findings so that KCLS solicitors can determine if and what has been implemented,” Ms Fennel said.
“It has made me realise just how opaque and out of touch white law is for Indigenous people for whom English may be their third language. It has been really rewarding work.”