By Ann Strunk
Over the past 10 months, 36 students built and delivered a legal service that gives City of Yarra residents free legal assistance to prepare wills, or powers of attorney, and put mechanisms in place to ensure their last wishes are known.
Wills & Wishes is part of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre’s Legal Help Service that also includes Divorce Assist and Fines Assist. The service helps people navigate the confusing processes involved in common legal issues.
Students piloted the service at St Mary’s House of Welcome in Collingwood, an organisation at helps people who are experiencing homelessness, poverty and mental illness.
Dignity and access to justice
Other free legal services exist, but this model is the only one fully run by multi-disciplinary university students and is designed to benefit the community and the students alike.
Working in interdisciplinary teams of one law and one social work student, the students were fully immersed in valuable hands-on experience from the get-go.
They were responsible for managing themselves and their clients, conducting client interviews, and managing case files and client referrals to other welfare services.
Critically, the students were responsible for providing legal and emotional support to people who were going through emotionally turbulent times, a formidable demand given that talking about death and end of life matters isn’t easy.
Importantly, irrespective of whether their discipline (law or social work) they rotated the roles of “agent” and “monitor”.
As agents, they interviewed and took instructions from clients. As monitors, they observed the interaction between client and agent, debriefed the agent, and briefed their supervisor.
This deep-immersion experience also gave the students a ‘real world’ opportunity to walk in their colleagues professional shoes to improve their own professional skills.
Law students reported that observing social workers and being monitors taught them to temper unemotional ‘data collection’ with a more emotionally intelligent bedside manner, and they learned that taking instructions doesn’t have to be a linear process.
Conversely the social work students, operating as agents, learned legal processes, and how following process and giving effect to client instructions that at times appear like ‘bad decision’ can actually empower clients.
And as pertinently, the students learned valuable life lessons from their clients.
Many clients were initially baffled when invited to make their wills, particular as St Mary’s clients have little by way of material possessions.
But writing a will is more than a necessity; it gives people dignity.
As they empowered clients to use their legal rights to ensure a beloved pet or treasured memento passed into the right hands, students had the opportunity to gain insights into the lives of people whom our wider society too seldom sees.
The NJC is confident that the students will carry their experiences with them as they enter their careers.
Behind the scenes
At the operational level, students designed every aspect of Wills &Wishes from promotional material to the operating manuals, which we are pleased to hear stretched their personal and professional skills.
The NJC is incredibly proud of students’ work. We put a lot of responsibility on their shoulders but they rose to the task of building an excellent and necessary service from the ground up.
Moreover we are delighted to say that St Mary’s clients appreciated their professional skills, kindness and support.
Having completed 100 wills, we wish them all the best with their careers.
For more information about NJC’s Legal Help Service contact the NJC on 03 9948 8777 or via email.