Invaluable Legal Aid Clinic still thrilling students after 20 years

Legal Aid Clinic group
Judy Wong, Jesse Iliopoulos, Daniel Morrison, Jennifer Michalakas and Sophie Trevitt at Legal Aid ACT where they are undergoing the first Legal Aid Clinic for 2017.

They’re learning about advocacy on their feet and the true nature of the legal system.

February marks the 20th anniversary of the Canberra Legal Aid Clinic, an opportunity for law students to work at the “coalface” of the legal profession while completing their Graduate Diploma Legal Practice at ANU Legal Workshop.
The clinic is run six times a year giving eight students in each session the chance to observe closed proceedings and perform legal aid services such as meet-and-greets. Peter Sutherland, Convenor and co-founder of the clinic, said students got to experience the reality of the system.
“It’s an intensive form of skills training that provides an immeasurable benefit to students in the exposure they have to social justice issues,” he said.
“Most haven’t gone to court and it’s not the experience they expect. It’s not all barristers and prison cells. It’s very much at the coalface of law which is civil law.
“They’re learning about advocacy on their feet and the true nature of the legal system.”
Each Monday for six weeks students work a different rotation: criminal court, domestic violence court, ACT Civil & Administrative Tribunal (ACAT), interviews with clients at the Legal Aid ACT office and Federal Circuit Court.
Jesse Iliopoulos, an ANU GDLP student undergoing the current session for the clinic appreciated the experience of his criminal rotation.
“It was a very unique experience,” he said.
“We went down into the docks and cells, talked to clients. It was a very different perspective than what you normally get when you go to court and observe from the public gallery.
“It was very different actually being with a lawyer and interacting and seeing what they do.”
As well as observing, the interview rotation gives students the opportunity to go from shadowing, to actively dealing with clients.
Daniel Morrison, who has also volunteered with the Aboriginal Legal Service, said it was the first time he had actively participated in interviews.
“We take a back seat when the lawyer arrives, but to begin with we’re there on our own with the client and we have to engage them, make them feel comfortable, get some background information and try to work out what the legal issue is,” he said.
“With each interview you get better at asking questions and structuring responses to get the information that’s most relevant.”
Danielle Gillett said it was interesting trying to unpack the issues for clients.
“With the interviews I find a lot of people aren’t really sure what information they need to tell us so sometimes it can take a little while to unpack why they’re actually there or what the key issues are,” she said.
“And then seeing how the lawyers pull the information out or steer it back on track is really interesting.”
The program also benefits the under resourced Legal Aid service, by placing qualified lawyers from ANU Legal Workshop in the office and serving clients.
Lecturer Peter Christensen is among the Legal Workshop lecturers who participate in the clinic.
“There’s never enough legal aid around the place and anything that gives further access to legal aid is helpful for the system,” he said.
“One of the good things about this clinic is that I can do a little bit more than just advice. Often we’re dealing with misunderstandings with institutions with insurance companies or the police.”
The program began as a collaboration between Peter Sutherland – then a part-time Legal Aid lawyer – and ANU Legal Workshop Senior Lecturer Judy Harrison.
“In those days the GDLP was run with a very different methodology. It was a six-month on campus course,” Peter said.
“We started the program to get the students off campus and into experiencing law.”
ANU Legal Workshop Acting Director Dr Skye Saunders said the clinic was invaluable to students.
“The Legal Aid Clinic provides students with an opportunity to enrich their understanding of the law and its practical translation in people’s lives,” she said.
“The ANU Legal Workshop is delighted to celebrate 20 years of this important clinical experience and we look forward to working with many more students in the future.”

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