Kurt Bayer

Kurt Bayer is an APNZ reporter based in Christchurch.

Students volunteering with post-quake law cases

The Canterbury University law students have been in hot demand. Photo / Thinkstock
The Canterbury University law students have been in hot demand. Photo / Thinkstock

Law students are volunteering at community law drop-in centres to bridge an access to justice gap in post-earthquake Christchurch.

The University of Canterbury law students are donating thousands of hours to help people wade through insurance documents, Earthquake Commission (EQC) correspondence, and preparing for criminal cases and employment disputes.

The new Dean of University of Canterbury's law school, Dr Chris Gallavin - at 39, the youngest head of law in the country - says the volunteers are helping people who would otherwise struggle to get legal representation.

"Without the earthquakes, it wouldn't have happened. The quakes have forced people to think out of the square, which law schools have generally not been very good at," he said.

The Canterbury earthquakes severely impacted the justice sector, with law firms losing offices, courthouses closing and judges forced to sit in makeshift courts in marae and community centres.

The quakes also coincided with a tightening of legal aid provisions, which meant Community Law Canterbury has stepped in to help provide legal services to people who cannot afford to pay for them, or who cannot afford a lawyer.

And the Canterbury University students have been in hot demand.

Around 200 future lawyers are voluntarily manning a 24-hour call centre, handling 100 calls a day; from criminal law, to contractual disputes, community law, dealings with Earthquake Commission (EQC) and Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).

They are working with prisons, police, local iwi, and the Howard League, while also holding clinics on insurance, employment and family law.

Community Law Canterbury manager Paul O'Neill says the students are providing a "professional robust service" .

"They're not here doing photocopying; they're making a real contribution. Their work is immense, and it's real," he said.

"The people who are ringing in are getting legitimate legal information."

Dr Gallavin said the post-quake community is "crying out" for accessible legal services and believes all of his 1000 students should be working with their community.

"Law students feel they can make a difference," Dr Gallavin said.

"Legal Aid has been run down significantly over the last year, and access to justice has gone down with it.

"The law school is a microcosm of the university as a whole, and the uni has a chance to really get involved in the community, which hasn't always happened. Universities are often aloof from the community.

"We're a resource to the community, and with community law we can get in there and make a real difference to people's lives."

The students are getting invaluable training, the community is getting a free service, the profession receives interns and dedicated research projects, while the relationship is doing "wonders for town-gown relationships", Dr Gallavin says.

Next year, he wants to introduce a community law course, which addresses the principles behind access to justice, and plans for victims of crime, as gang leaders and Supreme Court judges, to speak to the students.

He also wants a justice project to look at miscarriages of justice, like a criminal case review panel would.

"In five years, I want the law school to be at the centre of all things law. We shouldn't be on the periphery, we should be right in the heart of the community, doing what we can to help," Dr Gallavin said.

- APNZ

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