From strength to strength: Reflecting on 18 years of support to USP law graduates

Five of the forty-five newly graduated lawyers of the University of the South Pacific (USP), currently enrolled in the six-month Professional Diploma in Legal Practice programme, Oct 2015 Five of the forty-five newly graduated lawyers of the University of the South Pacific (USP), currently enrolled in the six-month Professional Diploma in Legal Practice programme, Oct 2015

In 1998, a successful partnership was initiated between the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC)’s Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT) and the University of the South Pacific (USP)’s School of Law with the founding of the Professional Diploma in Legal Practice (PDLP).

PDLP is a 22-week post-graduate course designed to prepare students for entry into legal practice, run at the Laucala Campus in Fiji twice a year. SPC is a module coordinator and instructor for the Family Law and Human Rights course.

‘SPC has been facilitating the 2-week module LWD06 ‘Family Law and Human Rights, Skills and Practice’ for 18 years now by designing content, delivering training and assessing students twice a year when the Diploma is offered by USP. This is a tremendous investment into the Pacific region and we are proud to be partnering with USP in this course,’ said SPC’s RRRT Deputy Director, Mark Atterton.

In addition, two students from each PDLP cohort receive internships with SPC to further develop their human rights legal research and analysis skills.

‘Our biggest strength in this programme is the fact that we were an integral part of this journey with USP from the very beginning. We were part of the discussions, the development of training materials, the delivery of the human rights and family law sessions and the evaluations,’ said SPC’s Senior Human Rights Adviser Ruby Awa, as she reflected on SPC’s support to PDLP over the last 18 years.

‘Additionally, a great advantage to the PDLP programme is the regional experience of the SPC team. The learnings from SPC’s consultations and technical support to lawyers, judges and governments across the region are shared with the law graduates first hand and this is a bonus,’ Ms Awa added.

Over the years, the family law and human rights sessions have progressed from general awareness on human rights and family law to critical analysis of human rights issues such as climate change, and making linkages between human rights, good governance and development in the context of the Pacific.

According to Ms Awa, this is due to the changing roles of lawyers in the region, from litigation to raising awareness for communities on human rights.

‘There is an increased demand on lawyers to advise governments on human rights at the national level as well as how to engage in dialogue on human rights at the regional and international levels. Therefore changes had to be made to ensure that the course stays relevant to the needs of the countries,’ Ms Awa said.

The module presents a ‘safe space’ for discussions and analysis around human rights issues within the context of the Pacific as well as internationally.

‘It’s becoming more thought-provoking. We find that a lot more students are aware of the human rights issues in the region and are asking critical questions, particularly about human rights violations in the Pacific and internationally, and questioning the effectiveness of the current systems to deal with the violations. For the SPC team, the questions are exciting because they present us with opportunities to go beyond the basic human rights concepts and mechanisms and into in-depth analysis around those issues,’ Ms Awa said.

For the SPC team, the experiences from the PDLP programme have been worthwhile and rewarding.

‘I am always learning from the students. It never stops, every time we get a new batch of students, there are new questions and experiences,’ said SPC’s Human Rights Officer Neomai Maravuakula.

‘The class discussions are always interesting, as students share their perspective on human rights issues as well as how they may apply this in practice in advising their clients. Even after the program students maintain contact with the team to provide them support as their incorporate what they learn into their daily work,’ Mrs Maravuakula added.

Since the commencement of the programme, more than 600 law graduates from across the region have completed the course with many going away empowered to make a difference in the lives of their people.

‘The two-week intensive training by SPC from 14 to 25 April has broadened my perspective on various issues, particularly the practical application of the law. What stood out for me is the notion of equality before the law and the right to equal protection when dealing with cases such as domestic violence in our Pacific communities,’ said Simione Seruvatu of Fiji, an intake of the PDLP programme in 2014. He was inspired by his Papua New Guinean mother to study law and be a voice for the people.

‘I look forward to going away from here to the field, where I can educate people about their rights and support their access to justice,’ Simione added.

Another student, Mohini Pillai, a mother of three who began her career in the legal field 24 years ago as a secretary in a law firm in Ba, Fiji, and later as a law clerk, is grateful for the cases and arguments shared during the family law weeks.

‘I realised that the cases presented during the training as exercises or assignment topics are real-life scenarios to prepare us for the real world of legal practice. The topic of climate change and human rights is also new subject matter highlighted in the training. This is very relevant to the Pacific context and I am so grateful to RRRT for introducing me to this topic and many other human rights issues,’ Mrs Pillai said.

For 25 year-old Nimita Sharma of Fiji, the course has also exposed her to real-life scenarios of human rights. ‘I found the family law sessions very informative. I have learnt a lot from the course and will take those skills and knowledge with me to the field. Being an online programme, PDLP is a great opportunity for me to learn directly from the course facilitators and I must say the SPC team is a professional team with great wealth of knowledge and experience in this area,’ Nimita said.

SPC, through the Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), works to build a culture of human rights and assists nation states to commit to, and observe, international human rights standards. The Programme receives core funding from the Australian Government.

SPC’s Regional Rights Resource Team receives core funding from the Australian Government and additional project support from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Pacific Leadership Programme (PLP), European Union (EU) and the German Development Bank (KfW).