When you are only beginning to learn English and you are required to complete a one hundred page form with over 60 questions, it poses a significant challenge. Add to the challenge, the stress that these forms will determine whether you will be able to stay in Australia and for tens of thousands of people who are yet to have protection claims processed, their chances for a successful result was looking bleak.
Working to find a solution to assist as many people as they can, the ASRC is now collaborating with law firms, Maurice Blackburn and Russell Kennedy in the establishment of legal clinics to provide access to justice for people seeking asylum in Australia.
The clinics represent a significant contribution towards providing legal assistance to some of the most vulnerable people.
Recent legislative changes introduced a new ‘Fast Track’ process for people who arrived by boat after 13 August 2012, which significantly changes the application process and includes tight timeframes, limited opportunities to introduce new information, and limited merits review. Other legislative changes have significantly altered the definition of a ‘refugee’, making it harder for asylum seekers to be successful in their protection claim.
While there are around 24,000 people in Australia waiting to be processed under the new Fast Track system, and another 6,000 being processed under the traditional refugee processing system, government funding for legal assistance to people seeking asylum has been drastically reduced.
Community legal centres have scaled up their resources to meet the need, but the community sector alone cannot meet the demand. Only through the contribution of the private sector, via clinics such as these is it possible to ensure people seeking asylum receive quality advice and assistance in relation to their protection claims. Without such support, there is a significant risk that people will be sent back to harm in their home countries.
The clinics will support an estimated 60 people seeking asylum over an initial six month period.
ASRC Principal Solicitor, Melinda Jackson, says “We are very excited to be partnering with both Maurice Blackburn and Russell Kennedy in the establishment of these clinics. Both firms have shown a great commitment to pro bono work, and their efforts help ensure that some of the most vulnerable people in our community will have the best possible opportunity for a successful protection claim”.
About the clinics
The legal clinics, run by each firm on alternating fortnights at their CBD offices, are staffed by the firms’ lawyers and paralegals in a pro bono capacity, and work directly with people seeking asylum to complete the complicated forms and statements required to seek a protection visa.
For Olivia McMillan, a Pro Bono Lawyer at Russell Kennedy it was a natural extension for her to volunteer for these clinics, but for many other staff involved in the clinics at Russell Kennedy, this is not the type of work they are familiar with or usually do. However after attending an information session provided by the ASRC, 30 staff volunteered to be on the roster for the clinics at their firm.
“They are excited to be involved with the clinics,” says Olivia “and are happy to provide their time.”
At the Russell Kennedy clinics they schedule for six clients each session who will meet with at least one lawyer and a paralegal who are then assigned to their case, and in most instances also an interpreter will be present.
The sessions run from 6 – 10pm and because of the complexity of the documentation required, it can take several clinic appointments for the client to have a fully prepared protection visa application. Some of the challenges include working with interpreters, explaining complex legal definitions in plain language, and gathering the level of detail required for the application process.
Access to justice
Nicki Lees, a lawyer in the Social Justice Practice at Maurice Blackburn, is thankful to the ASRC for facilitating Maurice Blackburn’s involvement in the clinic. Over 65 Maurice Blackburn employees are involved in the clinic.
“We consider access to justice to be one of the central pillars of a fair society and we have a long history of providing assistance to vulnerable or disadvantaged people in circumstances where they otherwise might not have legal help. Our staff provide support to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre as we believe it is of vital importance that asylum seekers have adequate assistance when they apply for protection visas.”
Training provided by the ASRC has helped lawyers manage the constraints of working with vulnerable clients and during the clinics they are supported by ASRC lawyers and specialists, who they can ask questions of. Olivia also explained that staff have specialists internally within Russell Kennedy who they can ask questions between sessions, to help their clients as much as possible.
About the Human Rights Law Program
The Human Rights Law Program is an independent, not for profit Community Legal Centre working within the ASRC. We provide free, expert immigration advice and representation to people seeking asylum who are at risk of persecution and human rights abuses in their home country. The Program does not receive any government funding. We are a team of 7 lawyers working with a large group of volunteers to deliver our holistic legal services. We also engage in policy and law reform, community legal education and training.
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