By Lauren Yeo
Volunteering not only grows your personal skills and is an awesome thing to get involved with at university; it can also help to hone your legal skills, and give you some real life legal experience whilst still in law school. I volunteer with the Community Justice Project, an organisation started by law students at Victoria University, and aims to improve access to legal services in the wider community. There are a number of projects that you can volunteer for, but I work with the advocacy team for the Student Rights Service.
The Student Rights Service is a phone line that parents of school students or school students themselves can call for legal information on educational issues. The phone line goes directly to voicemail, so callers leave a message and we research before calling back with information and possible solutions to their issue. Each phone call is like a mini client interview, as often callers don’t leave a lot of facts in their initial message or they may give you too many irrelevant facts, so it’s necessary to sift through to find what is legally relevant. Volunteering in this capacity has massively helped my communication and research skills. Some conversations may be about difficult or sensitive issues, and parents or caregivers are often emotional so it is really important to be understanding of the way they tell the story, whilst still giving them an objective response with the legal information and the best way forward.
We receive calls about numerous different problems at school, but the most common are suspensions and stand-downs, as well as bullying. For example, many parents call saying that their child has been sent home from school after an incident and told to not come back for the rest of the day. This is a ‘kiwi suspension’, and is illegal. Students can only be sent home from school if they are formally stood down or suspended on one of the specific grounds set out in the Education Act 1989, or under health grounds under the rules in the Education Act. In these cases, the student is under no obligation to go home unless they are issued with a formal suspension or stand-down.
I am also currently working on ‘Wagbot’, a chatbot that students and parents can access on Facebook messenger which gives legal information in response to problems at school immediately. Wagbot was developed by Geoffrey Roberts (General Manager at Community Law Wellington) and Matthew Bartlett, and I am researching and writing the legal content for the bot. At the moment, we have several people interacting with Wagbot each day and getting information on all kinds of school issues they are having. Often people who call the Student Rights Service line are in immediate need of help as they may have a Board of Trustees meeting the next day, so Wagbot is a great solution to this as it gives them the information as soon as they ask. It is also really popular with students, who are asking everything from everyday problems about crushes and friendships to questions about teachers’ rights to confiscate their property and legal punishments at school.
The best thing about the work we do is that you’re using your skills to engage with real people; it’s pretty cool to know that you are helping with real life legal issues as opposed to fictional legal problems on an exam paper! If you would like to volunteer in a legal capacity while you are at law school, check to see if your university has a similar organisation to the Community Justice Project. If not, you can volunteer directly at your local Community Law centre or Citizens Advice Bureau.