This year, PILnet Hong Kong organized the inaugural Law for Change Student Competition, sponsored by the WYNG Foundation. The competition paired law students and pro bono lawyers together to address access to justice issues, while raising general awareness about the role of law as a tool for change. The theme for this year’s competition was “Equality.”
The winner of this year’s competition is team “OUTLET” (Outreach Legal Talks Initiative), a student team from University of Hong Kong (HKU). OUTLET will be awarded a seed grant of HK$50,000 to implement their project in the next 12 months. Their project aims to provide free talks by law students directly to elderly and subdivided flat tenants on common legal issues as a preventive measure against potential legal problems.
OUTLET Team Members
Congratulations! Your team, was the winner of PILnet’s inaugural Law for Change Student Competition, which just concluded in January with a presentation of the 6 finalists and a concluding Award Ceremony. How does the team feel?
OUTLET: We are excited! But at the same time, we didn’t expect to win, and so it’s overwhelming. The hard work begins now, and it’s exciting that we will finally have the opportunity to implement the project after working on the plan for so long.
The theme of this year’s competition was Equality. What does equality and access to justice mean to you- especially in the context of Hong Kong?
H: I would say equality means equal opportunity in that we have equal access to the law, we understand what our rights are, and we understand the remedies available to us, should we need them. Equality is understanding the position the law puts us in, and accordingly, being able to take further action.
V: I would also add to that, the importance of knowledge. I think equal access is equal opportunity, but I think that knowledge is what empowers people to make good decisions. More importantly, you can’t buy your way to justice, it’s something that everyone deserves, and that’s bringing back equal treatment.
M: Access to justice means that even if you cannot afford the legal costs, you should still be protected by the law and the legal system, and be equipped with the necessary knowledge to take action.
Let’s talk a little about OUTLET’s project. It’s centered around providing early legal education to the elderly and sub-divided flat tenants, in order to prevent potential issues from escalating into larger, more complex legal problems. Why do you think community legal education, and especially providing it early on, is so important?
M: Our team values legal education because many underprivileged groups cannot afford to go to court to fight for their remedies. By providing early legal education, we can prevent problems from escalating by addressing it from the outset.
KSY: One of our key concerns is that a lot of people have a misunderstanding of the law and their own rights. For example, the elderly may believe that all their assets will go to their elder son without raising any questions, or the landlord may have a misunderstanding of the extent of the power and authority they have over their tenants. We think early legal education can balance and reduce this misunderstanding, and give the exploited and our target groups more bargaining power to say: “these are my rights, not just what I believe are my rights” and, as such, help prevent legal issues from arising or escalating.
H: As law students, we understand that it can be quite complicated to approach the law first hand. We believe that understanding the issues early on, and from a much simpler point of view can probably help our target groups become more familiar with certain legal concepts. This can prevent situations which could have been solved earlier on, and instead of having to look for a lawyer only to be bombarded with legal information that they may not understand.
K: I would also say it’s not just about education. It’s about the connection between underprivileged groups and university students, with legal education being a social service. In addition, underprivileged groups won’t have to rely on searching for information on the internet, which, firstly, may not be accessible, and secondly, may not be helpful to them. If we can go out and speak to them in laymen terms, this can provide a foundation for an understanding of the law.
How did you choose your two target groups- subdivided flat tenants (SFTs) and the elderly?
OUTLET: We actually chose our target groups based on key concerns and issues raised in the media. We initially started with four groups: foreign domestic helpers, ethnic minorities, sub-divided flat tenants, and the elderly. We narrowed it down to our two target groups, but we might think of expanding the scope later on.
As law students yourselves, why do you think it’s important to leverage expertise of law students for this project? What can they bring to the table and to the HK legal landscape? And what can they contribute to community legal education?
H: I think our project instills a pro bono mindset among law students, and makes it part of our learning process while we are still in university, rather than waiting to being exposed to these cases when we are lawyers. We want to make sure the legal industry is more inclined to provide community legal services, and contribute their skills to benefit society.
KSY: Moreover, as law students going through legal education, initially we were not accustomed to the legal language. As a result, we are more mindful of the importance of translating legal terms into laymen language in order to help our audience better understand the information that is being presented. That’s why it’s important to us that law students are the key stakeholders in our project.
M: Engaging law students helps us in pushing forward the idea of pro bono and public interest law. We really hope to implement this project and market the concepts of pro bono and public interest law, and raise students’ awareness on these concepts. The reality is: public interest law doesn’t earn lawyers the most money. Most law students want a decent job and want to be well-paid, and therefore opt for private practice. But public interest law is important because it connects to all different parts of society- the underprivileged, how the government relates to the people etc. The social value of public interest law is something we hope student participants of the project will learn more about.
V: Through our program, we hope also to make public interest law interesting. I think a lot of our classmates don’t know what public interest law is. We hope to do a lot of collaboration with other law students, to engage them and help them understand access to justice issues, and recognize the impacts they can make. I don’t think you can ever start too young to work in public interest law – you don’t have to wait until you’re a corporate lawyer, work for a while, then say: “I have time for pro bono work”.
What are a few things you learned while working on the project? What are some challenges you had while preparing your proposal?
H: One really valuable skill we acquired is leveraging the resources we already have. I think this is a good way of approaching the budget, and it challenges us to implement the project with existing resources, and with a minimum amount of additional resources. Having different perspectives from all the team members is definitely helpful. Also, our legal mentors brought different perspectives to the table, which we didn’t consider when we were writing the initial draft of the proposal.
M: A concrete skill we acquired is Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). For every project founder, there is a social mission and aim that we hope to achieve. Often, we use logic and inference to frame the aims and objectives, but we do not know whether we can achieve it. We need objective assessments and M&E helps us understand our means, and track if we have achieved our outcomes. This evaluation method is most concrete skill that we acquired.
Legal mentors were a key component of the competition as PILnet believes it is valuable and important that the student teams had those in the legal industry guide them throughout their projects. Can you tell me more about your experience with the legal mentors?
OUTLET: We think we were really lucky to have our mentors who made time for us and met with us every week. They scrutinized our proposal and asked us questions. They responded to emails, and they brought out aspects of our proposal that we never considered. We couldn’t ask for anything more!
OUTLET Team with the Law for Change Student Competition Judges: The Honourable Justice Kemal Bokhary, Mr. Rob Precht, and Professor Raees Baig
All of you are studying to be lawyers right now. But did you always want to be lawyers, if so, why? And if not, why do you want to be a lawyer now? What does being a lawyer mean to you?
KSY: I wanted to be a fashion designer at first, then I wanted to be an actress, then a scientist. Then senior year in high school, I got engaged in human rights issues: comfort women, war-time slavery, and war-rape. I got really into the topics dealt with at the international court of justice. I thought this was a passion I could pursue because I found myself getting really hot-headed every time I talked about it. I joined HKU Law School because I wanted to stay close to China where I was educated. I was lost when I first started law school, but the more I learn, the more I appreciate the details that go into being a lawyer, which really drove me onto this path.
H: I wanted to study material science and physics until my last year of high school, which is when I decided to switch. I wanted more diversity in what I was studying, and my main premise of what I wanted to do in university was very innovation-based. I think law is quite innovative, it is dynamic and it keeps changing. There was also one issue particularly that drew me to law: the issue of the Kashmir conflict in India. I’ve been to the place, and I know what the issue is. I thought if there could be a way that the law can solve it, I want to be part of it. For me, it’s about the diversity of a law degree, and how we can use the things we’ve learned to address various social issues.
V: Ever since I was young, I wanted to be a judge. I always had a sense of justice and equality. I want everyone to have the same opportunities, and I believe this is what a society should strive for. After high school, I took a gap year and I learned a few languages because I wanted to be a common linguist. Then I moved to Hong Kong to study law, because I think as a lawyer, you can make a difference, and you can see the difference you make. I chose Hong Kong because at the time I was applying it was the Occupy Movement. I saw how Hong Kong had such a vibrant civil society, and I thought it was an interesting time to study here.
M: Initially, I wanted to be a barrister in secondary school, which is why I chose this program. In my university life, my goal changed from being a lawyer to joining the government. My experience here gave me an insight that lawyers can make submissions, defend justice, and judges can make a judgment and uphold justice. But I hope to make good laws by joining the government by drafting legislations and formulating policies in order to bring justice to society, and ensure that these policies and laws will not deprive the underprivileged communities of their rights or marginalize their needs.
K: For me, I think being a lawyer gives you the opportunity to provide social services, which is a good way to make use of your own legal knowledge. You can combine your knowledge with your social mission.
KSY: Law is one of those rare subjects where you can put your own knowledge and other passions into practice. I also have interests in biology, economics and business. And I think a legal education provides us with the versatility to pursue different interests, which can be leveraged into our careers as lawyers.
What was your favorite aspect of the competition?
M: Legal mentorship. We are lucky to have had Davis Polk Wardwell LLP and Ms. Angela Li as our mentors who met with us once a week throughout the competition. Even after the conclusion of the competition, they are still eager to help us. They are giving us access to networks, bridging us to other interested parties and lawyers who are interested in engaging in pro bono services and have similar expertise. They really helped us to connect with the right parties and stakeholders for the project.
KSY: Getting to collaborate with everyone else on the team. We were friends before, but we didn’t have a chance to work together because the law school program doesn’t really provide team work opportunities. It was cool getting to know the team, and see how we work together as law students to pursue this project.
V: I think the support from PILnet and my fellow colleagues, and our legal mentors. I didn’t know PILnet would do so much after the competition as well. The competition is well designed, so we felt supported throughout the entire process.
Can you give one piece of advice for fellow law students, and those who are interested in participating in next year’s Law for Change Student Competition?
H: I would say, try to be as realistic as possible and be the most critical you can be of your own ideas, because I think that’s what makes the project implementable.
V: Be realistic and practical, and try to imagine the needs of those you want to serve. Put yourself in their shoes.
M: I would encourage future teams to dream first, to think outside of the box and really understand the legal needs of different underprivileged groups in Hong Kong and think of innovative ways to help them. We have seen in the competition a lot of ideas that are very innovative: for example, the mobile app team, who created an app to convey legal information to the community. I would encourage future teams to think outside the box, to dream big, and then find a way to make their idea implementable. They can fly high, but they need to make sure they can land on the ground.
KSY: For me, it was about the target groups. If you’re focusing on a particular social group, you should know the group you’re serving. We think our target groups need the most immediate help at the moment, and that’s one of the main reasons we won. I encourage future groups to spend some time doing their research, to specify and narrow down a certain group, and know what their needs are, then figure out how you can realistically serve them.
V: Also, I think it’s important to know what groups or organizations that are already out there that are serving your target groups, and to see if they are already doing what you’re doing, and to think about how you can build on what others are already doing. You don’t have to start your project completely from scratch, you can find something someone’s already doing, build on it, and learn how to improve it.
M: Seize the opportunity. Your four years of university life provides you with a pool of resources within the university. You can get professors, lawyers who are keen to be mentors, and law students to help you with your ideas. So, when you have an idea while you are a student in university, seize your opportunities, and kick start the idea. Otherwise, you won’t have the time when you graduate and become a full-time lawyer!
OUTLET Team Members with Garth Meintjes, President of PILnet and Leontine Chuang, Director of PILnet Hong Kong
(From left to right) Leontine Chuang, Yuen Man Yiu Marcus, Hansika Agrawal, Veronika Kramar Mandelj, Kim Soyoung, and Garth Meintjes
Once again, congratulations to OUTLET on being the winners of PILnet Hong Kong’s inaugural Law for Change Student Competition! PILnet Hong Kong will be launching the competition again this fall, please check back on PILnet’s website at a later date for more details.