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Law students volunteer to help overwhelmed refugee legal service

4 April 2017

40 UTS Law students have volunteered to provide urgent and ongoing legal assistance to the Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS) in Randwick. RACS

Organised by the RACS Legal Help for Refugees Clinic and UTS law lecturer and refugee law expert Anthea Vogl, the volunteer opportunity was open to students as part of the Brennan Justice and Leadership Program in response to a call for support by the overburdened service.

Currently, RACS is the only specialist legal centre in New South Wales to provide free legal assistance to people seeking asylum subject to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s Fast Track process.

Since the Department announced its decision to further fast track the ‘protection’ process, over 1800 RACS clients have been sent official letters threatening the cancellation of their Bridging Visa, Work Rights and Medicare access if they do not complete their applications within the specified time limit.

In some cases, clients have been given deadlines as short as 14 days to complete complex English-language application forms.

Dr Vogl said the students – who volunteered for two Saturdays in March and will volunteer again in late April – were trained in file management software and have so far file-managed the cases of over 1200 refugee clients.

She said she hoped the experience would not only alleviate some of RACS’ administrative burden, but allow students a greater understanding of the vital services community legal centres provide.

“There’s a lot to gain from clinical partnerships like this one. The students have been able to get hands on experience in the community legal centre sector, and they’ve been exposed to the important work done by RACS solicitors and staff.”

“They’ve also directly witnessed the consequences of existing refugee policy in Australia,” she said. “During training several of the students asked why certain refugees were denied legal assistance, and how these refugees could be expected to meet the new application deadlines and outline their claims without government funding for interpreters or legal help.”

Katrina Sotiropoulous, a UTS Law student who became involved with the Brennan program last year, said staff at RACS were faced with a burgeoning number of clients and administrative tasks

“The staff at RACS do amazing work, but there are only so many hours in the day. Us [students] helping out with administrative tasks – such as booking clients in for available appointments and chasing up client cases – means they are freed up to focus on the legal side of things.”

Nicholas McArdle, another Brennan student, said the experience allowed him to test his legal knowledge and develop a better understanding of refugee law.

He said he volunteered to help at RACS because “all people have a fundamental right to seek asylum”.

“It’s been a privilege to be able to give my time in a way that offers the prospect of justice to some of the most disadvantaged members of our society.”

The caseload of asylum seekers RACS and other refugee legal services are assisting refers to people who arrived by boat between August 2012 and December 2013 – before the then Labor government changed legislation regarding illegal maritime arrivals.

As community legal centres continue to struggle under increased cuts to funding, RACS staff are now calling for urgent financial assistance to help them add additional resources.

“We are grateful for our army of legal and interpreting volunteers, but we need experts to supervise them,” says a statement on the RACS website.

“Urgent financial support is needed now. This is a critical time. RACS needs to immediately fund two expert refugee lawyers and cover the costs of interpreting for these 1800 vulnerable people.”

You can support RACS and help asylum seekers in need by donating here.

Story by: Tess Gibney