When Professor Rice joined the law school in 2008, the then Dean Professor Michael Coper had recruited him to head the new Law Reform and Social Justice initiative (LRSJ). It was little more than an idea.
“Michael wanted to create an ethos of the law school’s commitment to law reform and social justice, but he left it to me to develop it,” Professor Rice says.
“Law reform activity in the College was not new – many people were making law reform submissions – but it wasn’t a big part of either our curriculum or our extra-curricular work.”
Professor Rice began with the students, working with some who had been involved in a defunct organisation called Law Students for Social Justice (LSSJ).
“I picked up the legacy of LSSJ and used that to start working with students. That was an effective way to get momentum for the initiative and the students were really keen,” he said.
“Over time staff became involved, principally as faculty advisors to student projects, which was a good way for them to relate to students and what they were doing.
“A social justice ethos really did filter from the bottom up.”
What followed was a series of experiments. Some ideas didn’t come to fruition, but many others have gone on, as hoped, to shape the ethos of the College and inspire staff and students to volunteer their time. They give legal assistance to vulnerable people, educate the public about important law reforms, and shine a light on social injustices.
Two founding projects – the Community Legal Education Project and the Prison Issues Project – continue today. One was an initiative that Professor Rice had already tried and tested more than 25 years earlier as a law student at UNSW.
“I was one of a group of students who set up a thing called the Schools Legal Education Group (SLEG), and students at UNSW still run SLEG. It’s an entirely student-run activity,” he said.
Through the program, laws students develop and deliver legal education classes to secondary school students.
“A legal education class starts from the students finding out what young people need and goes through a whole process of research and design and checking and training and piloting, before they finally deliver it,” he said.
“It requires great discipline; our students learn a lot and they’re much wiser about the whole idea of community project design and delivery.
“A real success is that students pretty much run it themselves.”
The Prison Issues Project – another founding initiative which continues as one of ANU College of Law’s contributions to justice in the wider Canberra community – is a proven success and is welcomed by ACT Corrective Services.
Developed by Jeremy Boland, a former ANU Law lecturer and official visitor at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC), students spend a semester training and preparing for a six-week legal literacy program for AMC inmates, supervised by faculty advisers.
Another long-standing project is ‘Ready 4 Recognition’ which aims to educate people about constitutional recognition for Australia’s First Peoples. It has seen the launch of a video legal explainer on YouTube and a website providing resources to help people understand the issues.
Today LRSJ is a thriving initiative that combines teaching, research and clinical work. The time, energy and commitment that staff and students devote to its projects is given in kind, rather than for credit.
“I started the initiative wanting it to be extra-curricular, confident that students would want to do it, and they did,” Professor Rice says.
“When it was suggested that we offer the programs for credit, I surveyed all of the participating students and overwhelmingly they said ‘no’.
“They said it would completely change their relationship with the activity. They didn’t want to be assessed, they didn’t want to think twice about what they were doing.
“It’s an unburdened, uncompromised commitment to social justice. It also means that the activities do not start and end with the semester; they have a natural life-cycle over many months.”
Through LRSJ, students have taken on refugee support, corporate accountability, law reform submissions and fair work laws, as well as maintaining the ACT Human Rights Portal which has been the only ongoing service that the LRJS officially provides.
Its newest project supports Indigenous Australians through law reform and para-legal support. The Kimberley Community Legal Service Project provides a Canberra-based hotdesk for the Kimberley Community Legal Service which is staffed by ANU law students and volunteers.
Several academics at the College are faculty advisors to the student-run projects, including Associate Professor Matthew Zagor who will take up the directorship following Professor Rice’s departure.. While students don’t have to take part to earn their law degree, they find its lessons to be invaluable.
“One of the things that I think students get from it is a much wider appreciation of the complexities and challenges of achieving access to justice,” Professor Rice said.
“They begin the year fired up with ideas of all the things they want to do, and by the end of the year they’ve done one or two things. Because they’ve done it well.”