Oxford Pro Bono Publico (OPBP) provides annual grants to allow students to undertake unpaid or poorly paid public interest law work at organisations and law firms across the globe. Ingrid Cloete, one of the successful applicants in the 2012 grants process, writes about her experiences working at the Centre for Child Law in South Africa.
When the OPBP committee put out a call for applications for the OPBP internship grant earlier this year, I jumped at the opportunity. By the end of my first year at Oxford, I was itching for some ‘real’ law – something beyond the textbooks, cases and coffee-fuelled discussions that dominated my BCL. South Africa has an incredible array of diverse public interest legal organisations that do pro bono work to promote human rights. As a South African student planning to return to the country on the completion of my MPhil, the opportunity to experience public interest law first-hand was too good to pass up.
The Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria was my first choice. The Centre has used strategic litigation to promote the rights of children in South Africa, using law to effect societal change rather than merely resolving individual disputes. The Centre has been involved in a diverse array of cases, from the rights of child detainees, to freedom of expression of children. As an aspiring advocate, aiming to specialise in in human rights, constitutional and administrative law, interning at the Centre gave me valuable exposure to human rights litigation.
I spent six weeks at the Centre and was involved in researching a number of important legal questions, including:
- How the Centre might be able to use statutory registers (the Child Protection Register and the National Register of Sexual Offenders) to protect children’s interests?
- To what extent does customary law provide for the protection of children’s best interests, and which aspects of customary law have been accepted, rejected or developed by the South African courts?
I was also very fortunate to be able to accompany the Centre’s attorneys to court. It was an incredible experience to be working in an office surrounded by engaged legal professionals, committed to promoting human rights in South Africa. This allowed me to truly appreciate the value of pro bono legal work, particularly in the area of children’s rights. For example, in 2012, the Centre obtained an order from the Constitutional Court that children’s interests are to be taken into account in assets forfeiture cases. In that case, a house had been seized under assets forfeiture legislation without considering the impact this would have on the children living in the house. This change in the law will have a wide impact for similarly situated children in future – and would not have come about without pro bono assistance. South Africa does not provide legal aid for cases other than criminal cases, which means that, without the assistance of pro bono groups such as the Centre for Child Law, many issues would never be argued. Added to this is the fact that children are particularly vulnerable, and lack access to legal services. Pro bono assistance is thus essential to promoting their interests.
To anyone thinking of participating in the OPBP internship programme, my advice would be: do it! Often our ideas of what professional avenues are open to us as lawyers are unnecessarily limited. Doing law that is engaged with the community, which responds to people’s needs and aims to make a strategic impact, is hugely rewarding – and hugely challenging. My internship opened my eyes to new ways of interacting with the law, and made me think about law as a real tool, rather than something abstract. So if you’d like to do some real law, get involved in the OPBP internship programme, and see just how useful a law degree can be.
Ingrid is a MPhil candidate in the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford.