While many of their peers across the country scoured textbooks this October, six Washington and Lee Law students traveled to Tanzania to tackle the issue of access to legal aid.
The students' effort culminated with a just released, fact-finding report to aid the advocacy efforts of the Women's Legal Aid Center, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Tanzania.
The law students were participating in one of W&L Law's third-year practicum courses, which blend real-life practice experience and simulations to help students prepare for law practice. Each year, the International Human Rights Practicum works hand-in-hand with the Women's Legal Aid Center to target a relevant legal issue.
Prof. Johanna Bond, who has been teaching an iteration of the course since 2001, chooses a topic that fits into the organization's agenda while providing her with pedagogically sound material. This year, Prof. Bond and her students had especially providential timing, as a legal aid bill is currently working its way through Tanzania's government.
After six weeks of intensive classroom training during the fall, students set off for Africa. "I really just wanted the opportunity to go and use my legal background to make some sort of difference there," said Jill Nyhof, a third-year student from Ontario.
Tanzania has deep-rooted problems surrounding legal aid, specifically in access for indigent criminal defendants. Although domestic and international human rights laws require that legal aid be provided, the government has failed to implement them due to a severe lack of resources. The state only provides a lawyer to an indigent criminal defendant in capital cases, like murder or high treason. In many of these cases, the appointed lawyers are given so little preparation time and compensation that they simply push the case through the system.
"The problems run very deep in terms of lack of access," Bond said. "There's incredible power of the state in a prosecutorial role and very little to weigh against that on the side of the criminal defendant."
Students began the semester studying Tanzanian law and practicing their interviewing skills before journeying to Tanzania mid-October for a whirlwind ten-day trip. With the help of the Women's Legal Aid Center, they set off in teams of two for interviews with everyone from lawyers and judges to police officers.
"There was a lot of pressure to try to get all the information you needed out of that one interview," Nyhof explained. "A lot of times we only had one shot."
Students learned to think quickly and adapt to change while adjusting to a completely different environment. "For a lot of students, it's incredibly eye-opening to be in a place where the level of poverty is so great," said Bond.
The class recently completed the 90-page report and submitted their recommendations. They encouraged expansion of the state brief system to appoint counsel to all those facing imprisonment, beyond just those accused of capital offenses. Another section said that the appointed counsel should be provided sufficient time to prepare their case and civil society organizations should begin to represent the criminally accused.
In addition, they lobbied for an increased role of paralegals and advocates in Primary Courts. To enable long-term improvements, the class recommended that Tanzania begin the process of eliminating the societal bias against criminal defense work. A copy of the full report is available online.
Bond believes that their commentary can make a difference. "In this case, I actually think we might have the potential to influence the debate around the bill," she said.
This course exemplifies the ideals of W&L Law's innovative third-year curriculum, which is designed to bring together practical and intellectual education, preparing students for the transition into the real world of legal practice.
Bond, an expert in international human rights and gender law, extolled the practicum experience. "I really believe in this form of legal education," she said, citing the multitude of transferrable skills that her students acquire, like legal analysis and problem solving, interviewing techniques, and working collaboratively.
The students valued the opportunity to implement their legal skills to make a tangible impact. Reflecting on her experience, Nyhof said, "It worked out better than I could have imagined."
This article was written by Michael Agrippina '15.