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Mitigating the Catch-22: How Law Students can Contribute to the Abolition of the Death Penalty


Industry experience is necessary in transitioning from law school to practice. There has always been a Joseph Heller-ish ‘catch-22’ for law students applying for part-time jobs.


That is, firms have an incredulous expectation that they have two years’ experience in a professional services firm, but none are willing to provide the entry-level opportunity that enables students to get their foot in the door. This is despite the fact that many possess research, referencing, and writing skills that are lacking in experienced lawyers. Importantly, the initial exposure to the legal profession can shape a student’s career pathway. Ultimately, students are only becoming disheartened as the student to job ratio grows increasingly imbalanced.


Despite these challenges facing emerging lawyers, there is a niche market for law students that does not involve the catch-22.


Significantly, the opportunity exists uniquely for Monash law students. In 2018, Monash’s Faculty of Law launched the Anti-Death Penalty Clinic (Clinic). The Clinic invites law students to be involved in advocacy as well as casework in collaboration with clients located around the world, primarily in Southeast Asia.


The Clinic is dedicated to ‘[t]raining tomorrow’s anti-death penalty researchers and advocates’.[1] The Clinic was, for me, a pivotal moment. Leaving the Clinic after 12 weeks of intensely drafting court submissions in a small team, I felt more aware of my own potential to contribute to justice in a tangible way, despite my own inexperience in criminal or international law and not yet being an admitted lawyer.


I was shocked by the numbers of incarcerated persons on death row. Currently, the global death row population has exceeded 26,500 people.


The human rights failings present in retentionist countries was especially confronting.[2] The work done at the Clinic not only assists death-row inmates but also sheds light on perpetual inequalities, largely including the marginalisation of ethnic, gender, or racial minorities by the courts that sentence them and by the correctional institutions that imprison them. The guilt or innocence of the accused appears to be irrelevant in many of these cases.


There is a demand amongst the Clinic’s clients for law students that are interested in tackling these issues to produce high quality research, publications and court submissions to aid the plight of death-row inmates globally.


Many of these clients lack the capacity or resources to produce advocacy publications or develop case strategies based on extensive research – all of which law students are capable themselves.


As students, we are uniquely placed to achieve what these non-governmental organisations cannot. We have access to a significant array of resources and have been provided with stellar legal training.


Without the barrier that is posed by the profession’s catch-22, law students can work together with these NGOs on intense, critical and often urgent matters. Consequently, students consolidate the skills necessary to transform themselves from student to practitioner and gain early exposure to the profession.


The most rewarding aspect of this type of work is the end result of a matter which a student has meaningfully contributed. Personally, I observed the enactment of law reform, the creation of a capacity-building program for foreign lawyers, the publication of research, and even the adoption of a recommended strategy. For others, this may also include the granting of clemency or a sentence reduction to a death-row prisoner.


The value of law students has been recognised by other peak organisations. Capital Punishment Justice Project (formerly Reprieve Australia) has a volunteer program through which law students are involved in work similar to that of the Clinic.[3] Law students are connected with capital defence centres around the world, including America, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. In 2020, the Law Institute of Victoria’s Young Lawyers Law Reform Committee commenced a collaborative project with law students investigating contemporary issues with anti-death penalty work.[4]


While my placement at the Clinic has ended, I have continued to assist with its efforts. The Clinic has now been incorporated into the wider research initiative, Eleos Justice, at Monash’s Faculty of Law and is led by Mai Soto and Sara Kowal. Mai and Sara encourage students to pursue their passions whether that is defending human rights, collaborating with legal aid lawyers, conducting research or performing case work.


As law students, we are uniquely placed to contribute to these initiatives and programs without fear of the threat of the catch-22. While Heller’s tragedies seem incapable of being rectified, the global trend towards abolition of the death penalty seems much more hopeful. In part, this is due to the contributions and achievements of work done in law schools by and/or with the support of law students.


References:


[1] Monash University, ‘Teaching: Our Eleos Anti-Death Penalty Clinic’, Eleos (Web Page) <https://www.monash.edu/law/research/eleos/teaching>.

[2] See, eg, Natalia Antolak-Saper, Sara Kowal, Samira Lindsey, Ngeow Chow Ying and Thaatchaayini Kananatu, ‘Drug Offences and the Death Penalty in Malaysia: Fair Trial Rights and Ramifications’ (Monash University, 2020) 14-27.

[3] Capital Punishment Justice Project, ‘Volunteer’ (Web Page) <https://cpjp.org.au/volunteer/>.

[4] The details of this project will be the subject of a forthcoming article in the Law Institute Journal.


Image: Monash Law

 

Samira Lindsey is completing her LLB (Hons), BA (International Relations) and DipLang (Indonesian) at Monash University. Since 2018, Samira has provided research assistance to academics at Monash University’s Faculty Law and Swinburne’s Faculty of Business Law. She is currently working as a barrister’s assistant at the Victorian Bar and as a paralegal at an international law firm. In 2019, Samira completed an in-house placement with the Monash Anti-Death Penalty Clinic. In 2020, Samira co-authored a publication with academics entitled ‘Drug Offences and the Death Penalty in Malaysia: Fair Trial Rights and Ramifications’ published by Monash University. Since 2020, Samira has been fortunate to provide pro bono assistance to barristers and lead a new anti-death penalty initiative at the Law Institute of Victoria.

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