International Law Clinic invites students to solve real-world problems

Hayley and Charlotte
Bachelor of International Relations/Laws (Hons) student Hayley Keen (left) and Bachelor of International Security Studies/Laws (Hons) student Charlotte Nichol.

The International Law Clinic experience is refreshing because it is not about proving how much you know; instead, it is about creatively applying relevant research to unique problems.

In 2020, The Australian National University (ANU) College of Law re-introduced the International Law Clinic (LAWS4302). This clinic is offered as an undergraduate course for students who have an interest in experiencing the practical application of international law. Its main focus is to encourage students to work collaboratively while responding to projects initiated by the conveners.

Since questions of international law can sometimes raise sensitivities, this clinic is operated ‘in house’ within the College. The clinic revolves around virtual clients for whom students assess legal issues.

In Semester 1 2020, students explored issues surrounding Australia’s legal obligations to repatriate Australian women and children from refugee camps in Syria, climate change and statehood in the Pacific Islands.

In this Q&A, Bachelor of International Relations/Laws (Hons) student Hayley Keen and Bachelor of International Security Studies/Laws (Hons) student Charlotte Nichol discuss their project, skills they acquired through their clinical experience, and advice to other law students considering applying.

1. What motivated you to apply for the International Law Clinic?

A passion for international law is what inspired us to apply. It is a fantastic opportunity to translate theoretical study into a real-world attempt to solve problems which arise in the international sphere. The clinic also gives a lot of scope for us to research international law issues which we were personally interested in or emerging issues which are not covered by a whole course. For example, both of us are interested in law of the sea and climate change.

2. Can you tell us more about the clinic and the student experience?

Currently, the course operates as a virtual clinic with hypothetical clients. We met as a group before COVID-19 but were lucky enough to transition seamlessly online. The clinic is fortunate to be visited by ANU academics who share with us their experiences working in the various areas of international law, such as refugee law, human rights and trade, as well as their expertise in writing to address client problems and drive policy outcomes, for example through advocacy briefs and parliamentary submissions. Currently, students pick clinical projects to research and apply their international law knowledge. Still, eventually the clinic aims to generate external clients and apply work to address these clients' needs. We work collaboratively in small groups to suggest avenues where international law can respond to these problems, or where reform is needed.

Students who are applying can expect to have the guidance of leading international law scholars at ANU, ownership over significant research and project writing, and the opportunity to make like-minded friends who you can collaborate with in the future.

3. What inspired you to choose your project and what did it entail?

Our project focused on addressing the ways Pacific Island States could 'fix' their maritime boundaries under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and how fixing such boundaries would bolster claims these states have continued statehood even if their territory was inundated by sea-level rise. The project suggested mechanisms for fixing baselines as they currently stand under UNCLOS, concluding that a supplementary agreement would be the most compelling long-term approach. It also argues that the concept of ‘deterritorialised states’ should be internationally recognised as an additional category of statehood which ensures that the inundated Pacific Island States enjoy continued recognition despite any relocation or mergers made necessary by sea-level rise.

We were inspired to do something that actively addressed a situation of growing concern. We wanted our efforts in the clinic to anticipate a real problem, in an area which lacks significant academic research, so that we could spearhead an original response. We were both inspired by an interest in international law's response to climate change, and the stewardship of Professor Donald Rothwell FAAL, ANU's resident expert in Law of the Sea, we thought choosing this angle concerning sea-level rise would be a novel and a worthy contribution. The Pacific was also a natural choice given Australia's position in the region and involvement in the Pacific Islands Forum and the relevance of this issue to Pacific Island States.

4. What were the rewards and challenges of your project?

COVID-19 and the transition to online learning have been great challenges for the law school, but this course adapted exceptionally. One of the biggest challenges we found as a pair was not second-guessing ourselves and being confident in the work we were producing. This can sometimes be difficult if you are unable to rely on previous scholarship because the problem to be solved is unique or novel, but that challenge leads to one of the best rewards.

It is fantastic to know that we have contributed to this space, and potentially might help drive responses in international law to sea-level rise. We have already submitted our project to a Parliamentary Inquiry, and the clinic is moving to distribute our work to relevant stakeholders. Putting legal knowledge to practical use in this way has been a great reward. In addition, working alongside like-minded students and experts has been inspiring, with us both becoming very close friends.

5. How do you hope to apply what you learnt during this experience in future?

We both learnt the value of asking questions and clarifying understanding. It was fantastic to have Professor Rothwell and our classmates with us on this journey - we were able to check-in and ask how to craft our approach to things. It is unusual to have that level of teamwork and guidance in many law subjects, so the value of collaboration is something all of us in the clinic would take away into future endeavours. Many hands make lighter and more insightful work.

6. What advice would you give other law students considering applying?

We would both say that students applying for the clinic should ensure that they throw themselves into the clinic wholeheartedly and not get worried that they don't know enough about a specific area of international law. Neither of us knew much about law of the sea before our experience in the clinic. The International Law Clinic experience is refreshing because it is not about proving how much you know; instead, it is about creatively applying relevant research to unique problems and exploring all aspects of that problem without any pre-conceived ideas.

Find out more about the International Law Clinic (LAWS4302) here.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team