A truly innovative pro bono initiative, law graduates specialising in commercial property law with Sydney firm Massons can choose the opt-in program with Human Rights For All. A graduate secondment which fully immerses new lawyers in human rights law for two months. We caught up with Leisha de Aboitiz, Partner at Massons, Alison Battisson, Director of Human Rights For All, along with Massons graduates to learn more about the program.
Massons providing pro bono help to refugees and stateless people
Massons and Human Rights For All (HR4A) were both founded around six years ago. Alison and Leisha were close personal friends, as well as former colleagues, and so a collaboration was natural.
“Human Rights for All is a charitable law firm which provides pro bono assistance to refugees and stateless people in immigration detention in Australia,” Alison explains. “We take on complex cases and represent long-term detainees.”
Alison’s work on HR4A began in 2015 when she visited places of detention.
“I was shocked at the lack of access to legal representation,” Alison says. “I met some people who hadn't seen a lawyer for half a decade and hadn't spoken to one for three years. As such, I decided that I would try to fill that gap, and HR4A was slowly born.”
Some of HR4A’s clients have been detained for over 12 years. HR4A is also involved in assisting Afghans who are currently at risk with coming to Australia under the humanitarian program.
“HR4A represents clients at all stages of the protection process in Australia - from submissions to the Department of Home Affairs, to appearing in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, to the Federal Circuit and Family Court, Federal Court of Australia and the High Court of Australia,” Alison says.
“We also regularly liaise with various United Nations bodies. This includes making submissions to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), Committee Against Torture and the Human Rights Committee. All opinions issued by the WGAD on Australia since 2017 are the result of the work of HR4A. In Australia, HR4A liaises with the Australian Human Rights Commission and works cooperatively with other human rights legal centres.”
No day could be described as ‘typical’ at HR4A. Their work spans litigation, advocacy, policy submissions, and effectively anything they can do to assist their clients.
HR4A is Australia’s only charitable law firm without a sister commercial firm supporting its work and it does not receive Government grants. This is why the secondment with Massons is so important to HR4A and vital to its ongoing work.
“All our monetary funding comes from private donors, including clients who are released and ‘pay it forward’ to assist other detained people, as well as with court costs. Having high-quality secondees enables us to provide representation to more people in need,” Alison says.
A unique model - fully immersed lawyers, not external advisors
Massons provides graduates with a two-month secondment with HR4A during their graduate year, fully sponsored by the firm with all costs covered by Massons.
“It has been designed as an ‘opt-in’ program so our graduates can decide whether or not they would like to participate,” Leisha explains.
“Graduates wanting to participate in the program are relocated to the HR4A headquarters in Newtown and are fully immersed in human rights law for the full two months of the secondment. This usually happens in the second half of their graduate year, after they have completed the training program and have spent some time learning about commercial property law and Massons.”
Graduates experience hands-on litigation. This includes opportunities to attend hearings before tribunals, the Federal Court and Federal Circuit Court, High Court, or any other courts concerning administrative law and refugee review.
“Through the secondment, graduates are exposed to work that is literally life-changing,” Leisha says.
“There was nothing more natural for us than trying to find a way to help HR4A extend its reach. We have watched Ali’s incredible vision turn into something life-changing. There are so many people relying on her and there are never enough resources to help them all. Whilst we could have simply donated the value of the secondments, we wanted to do more than that. We wanted a sustainable, long-term partnership – a program that delivered wins for all participants - for Massons, HR4A and for our graduates.”
After workshopping several options, they pioneered a non-standard model for pro-bono work unique to the legal profession.
“In our experience, it is more usual to give lawyers exposure to pro-bono work by acting in an external advisory capacity,” Leisha explains. “This means that the lawyers are generally advising on areas of law that they specialise in, such as negotiating a lease at no charge. The work is similar to what they usually do, and a pro bono client is treated like any other client, save that time is not charged.”
“This is completely different to our offering, and in our view, it wouldn’t achieve the same kind of win/win for our secondees or for HR4A,” Leisha says.
“For example, last year we provided HR4A with high-quality, well-trained law graduates for half the year. This provides significant resourcing relief and allows HR4A to do more work for more people. From our perspective, we were able to offer three law graduates a litigation and human rights secondment where they are taught to think creatively, solve unique problems and be fearless. This is of course in addition to simply being able to support a cause we feel passionately about.”
Alison echoes Leisha’s assessment of the secondment arrangement: “Having highly trained secondees from Massons has made an enormous difference to the work of HR4A. Their legal skills are excellent and the opt-in structure means we get people who are fully committed to our work.”
Helping refugees and stateless people starts from day one
From the moment they arrive, graduates seconded from Massons are involved in every aspect of HR4A’s work.
“We have a pre-start date training session, and then it's on!” Alison says. “Massons graduate lawyers work with us full time for a minimum commitment of two months. They come to all court and tribunal hearings, virtual and in person, and are expected to interview clients and be involved in discussions on complex human rights legal problems.”
Feedback from the program has been unanimously positive.
“Our graduates have loved the experience and Ali has loved our graduates,” Leisha says. “Ali has told us about people that she has been able to help because she has had the extra resourcing from Massons. This feels great – like you are really making a difference.”
Graduates love the secondment so much they often continue as volunteers after the secondment concludes.
“I don't think we have one former secondee who isn't still periodically involved in our work,” Alison says. “As an example, one former secondee completed applications for Afghan women at risk in Russia. These women are working their way through the humanitarian visa process and should be in Australia relatively soon. That secondee receives updates whenever the cases move forward, and there will be a pretty big party when the women arrive!”
The partners at Massons find it extremely rewarding to hear how their graduates have contributed to changing people’s lives.
“This makes us proud of our graduates and also of the HR4A team – they have created a wonderful and rewarding culture that people want to be a part of,” Leisha says. “Because of the nature of the program it has also led to an excellent cross-culture in our teams. We have lots of joint team catch ups and HR4A feels like an extension of our core team now.”
Changing lives is the reward these graduates seek out
For Massons graduates, the appeal of using the law to help asylum seekers and stateless people was a major drawcard of their HR4A secondment.
“During the secondment, I got a taste of fast-paced litigation matters that are at the forefront of administrative law,” Massons lawyer Catherine Kim says. “Exciting new arguments with the potential to shape Australia’s future human rights and immigration policies are put before the courts every day. It’s vastly different from my everyday practice as a property lawyer.
“Day in and day out, I felt like I was making a real-world contribution, fighting for stateless individuals in indefinite detention, asylum seekers fleeing from war-torn nations for fear of persecution on the basis of their gender, race or political views.”
Forced out of her comfort zone, Catherine was able to apply the training she received at Massons to legal tasks and challenges she would not normally face as a commercial property lawyer. Along with the immersive nature of the program, it is the exposure to international law, particularly with regards to Australia’s human rights obligations, that makes the program so popular.
“I assisted in undertaking legal research on Australia’s international human rights obligations and drafted submissions to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Australian Human Rights Commission, and other human rights organisations. This also made me critically view the problems with our current systems and the real need for social justice.”
Catherine believes her HR4A experiences have made her a better property lawyer and she feels even more committed to her chosen field.
“As a property lawyer it can be quite formulaic. Although this is one of the reasons why I enjoy the field, HR4A challenged me to approach the law in creative ways and consider creative legal solutions that I may not have otherwise considered. It also reinforced the need to act quickly to adapt to different situations, and not be afraid to be more curious or question ideas.
“I am very proud to work for Massons, as the firm truly cares about the growth and development of all their employees. By encouraging me to experience a different area of law, it helped me realise I am much better suited to the transactional and commercial aspects of the law. That said, I am so grateful to have worked with and learnt from the great team at HR4A and to have helped with the amazing work they do every day.”
A transformative pro bono program you can get involved with
The College of Law was lucky enough to have Alison Battisson make the keynote speech at its annual graduate celebration in Sydney this November. Over a hundred PLT and postgraduate alumni came together to celebrate the Excellence Awards winners and to connect with the legal profession in a relaxed environment. Alison gave a passionate speech about the plight of refugees and stateless people and what we can do to help. For law firms interested in supporting the work of HR4A, Alison has these suggestions:
“Firms can send us medium to long-term secondees!” Alison says. “Include HR4A in your charitable giving programs, hold a fundraising day for us or donate directly. We are also available to speak at events and provide human rights training on international and Australian laws.”Human Rights For All