Work Experience that Makes a Difference: Volunteering at the Hong Kong Justice Centre

Georgina Pressdee

My Summer Work Experience

Over the Summer I was fortunate enough to visit Hong Kong and spend three weeks working for an organisation called the Justice Centre, as part of their University of Cambridge Human Rights Law Clinic. This scheme was open only to currently law students studying at Cambridge. The clinic functioned much like an unpaid internship, with participants receiving training in the first two days and then being set supervised legal work to support Justice Centre cases. There were six of us in total, working in two teams of three.

The Justice Centre, Hong Kong

The Justice Centre is an NGO, working in Hong Kong non-refoulement law – a niche area of law, which I will explain further in the following paragraph. The centre primarily assists asylum seekers and persons seeking refugee status with making their claims in Hong Kong.

While Hong Kong doesn’t formally accept asylum seekers or refugees, a successful non-refoulement claim will prevent the Immigration Department from sending a claimant back to their country of origin. An illegal immigrant can bring a claim if returning to that country would put them at a real risk of either: persecution, as defined by Article 33 of The UN Refugee Convention; cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment (CIDTP) or death, under Articles 2 and 3 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance (HKBORO); or torture, under Article 1 of the CAT Convention.

The Justice Centre is an incredibly valuable resource for its clients, as the duty lawyer service provided by the Hong Kong government is beyond inadequate. The duty lawyers are largely incompetent, offer very little time to claimants and are not provided for claimants until far too late in the process, when key statements have already been submitted. The substantiation rate of claims is exceedingly low (with a meagre 0.8% of claims achieving success, compared with 28% and 62% in the UK and Canada respectively) and applicants are often unrepresented on appeal. As of 2017, only 9% of non-refoulement claimants were represented for their petitions/appeals at the Torture Claims Appeal Board (‘the TCAB’).

The Clinic

My first days at the Justice Centre involved training in Hong Kong non-refoulement law, as well as assessing client credibility and interview technique. This was not only extremely useful for my internship, but more generally for improving the practical skills essential for any future legal practice. As someone pursuing a career in human rights, learning how to approach an interview with a potentially vulnerable client was particularly useful for me. I will need the ability to make my clients feel at ease and comfortable so that interviews are not a stressful experience and they feel able to share what is often the most crucial information.

During and following my training, I began country of origin research for a Justice Centre client to support his claim that, if returned to his home country, he would be at risk of CIDTP. With the other interns on my team, I condensed this research into a memo. This really helped me hone my research skills, as my work needed to be efficient and concise so that my supervisor could sift through it quickly. I also had the opportunity to attend meetings and listen to the clients themselves. This assisted my research, which could then be targeted at supporting specific parts of the client’s statement and incorporated into our memo. It also expanded on my interview technique training, as I was able to see and learn from how the Justice Centre lawyers conducted their interviews, and the techniques they deployed to make sure that a client felt comfortable when sharing their story. It’s easy to see how sharing a deeply upsetting past can be overwhelming.

My final task was to draft a re-opening application for the client, as their previous claim had been decided on misleading evidence and the decision making had been poor, riddled with illogical findings and the personal assumptions of the adjudicator. While I did this, the other interns on my team worked on an application for judicial review. I enjoyed this part the most, as I had been given real responsibility in handling the claim. For me, what distinguished the JCHK from my previous work experience was that it gave me the opportunity to provide genuine legal assistance and I was made to feel a valued member of the team.

On the last weekend, there was an optional non-refoulement claim simulation, in which both interns and the Justice Centre’s pro-bono commercial lawyers participated. We were split into groups, each of which played a different role in the non-refoulement claim process. I was assigned to the Immigration Department. My job was to briefly research the claim, conduct a claimant interview and decide their case. This was a fantastic opportunity for me to put the skills that I had learnt on the programme into practice.

The final perk of the programme was being treated to lunch by several of the Justice Centre’s commercial law pro-bono partners, including Linklaters and Freshfields. They were keen to promote their pro-bono work, particularly with the JCHK, which (as an NGO in Hong Kong) is not authorised to represent its own clients.

Funding

A final point to note about the programme is the cost. I was surprised at how expensive it was to participate in the scheme. However, once there I learnt that, as the Justice Centre receives almost no funding from the Hong Kong Government, the clinic is a genuine source of funding for the organisation. Without this funding it would not be able to continue the invaluable work it conducts.

I would strongly recommend that anyone thinking of applying to the scheme also applies for funding from their college and the Careers Service. In particular, the Careers Service runs a Not-for-Profit bursary scheme, offering £500 for Summer schemes, which I was fortunate enough to receive. More information on how to apply for this can be found here:

http://www.careers.cam.ac.uk/bursary/index.asp (you will need to have signed up to the university Careers Service first). It is worth noting that, as the deadline for Justice Centre applications is quite late, you will need to apply for funding before you learn the outcome of your Justice Centre placement. I was able to apply for provisional funding with both my college and the Careers Service.

My Takeaway

The work that the Justice Centre does is so unbelievably important. The cost may be off-putting, but the programme really delivers. On the whole, the experience was extremely rewarding and taught me valuable skills which I will undoubtedly apply in any future practice.

More Information

Information about this year’s clinic will be shared on the Cambridge University Human Rights Law Society Facebook page once it becomes available:

https://www.facebook.com/CUHRLS/?ref=bookmarks

For more information about the clinic:

https://www.justicecentre.org.hk/university-legal-clinical-programme/.

For more information about the Justice Centre:

https://www.justicecentre.org.hk/who-we-are/

For more information about non-refoulement law in Hong Kong: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/HKG/INT_CERD_NGO_CHN_31953_E.pdf