Saturday, May 14, 2011

Indigenous law clinics and legal education

I recently attended a conference at the University of British Columbia that focused on the role of clinical legal education in the teaching and learning of indigenous law (including indigenous legal traditions, tribal codes and federal Indian law in the USA, and legal issues of particular relevance to indigenous peoples).  Clinical programmes are a more common feature of legal education in North America than they are in Aotearoa.  Most of the participants at this conference were involved in running law clinics that provide legal advice and advocacy for indigenous communities and at the same time enable law students to gain practical experience.  The Southwest Indian Law Clinic at the University of New Mexico is one of the oldest such clinics.  The university's website describes the work of the clinic as follows:

In the Southwest Indian Law Clinic (SILC), student attorneys represent Native clients in state, federal, and tribal courts and in governmental agency hearings. Students also have the opportunity to work with tribes, pueblos, and organizations serving the Native American community.  SILC faculty emphasize community involvement and sensitivity, collaborative lawyering, and multi-disciplinary problem solving.

There are similar, well-established programmes at a number of other universities throughout North America, including at Gonzaga University in Washington state, Washburn University in Kansas, and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.  These programmes aim to assist students to develop skills and knowledge through more experiential learning than can be provided in an ordinary classroom setting.  But these are all closely supervised programmes, which include the kind of lectures, seminars or tutorials with which a New Zealand law student might be more familiar.

I was particularly interested in the way that a combination of classroom and clinical formats are being used in these programmes to help students develop a measure of cultural literacy.  One of the conference participants, Aliza Organick, has written about the importance of building the concept of culture into legal education.  Organick has suggested that problem solving in a cultural context is a crucial skill for a lawyer and that, if anything, understanding culture, and legal culture in particular, is becoming more important as the legal field becomes more globalized and rights relating to culture are being articulated in international human rights instruments. 

At its heart, an awareness and understanding of culture is central to a lawyer’s ability to represent his or her client.  In the context of representing indigenous groups, Christine Zuni Cruz, one of the founding directors of the Southwest Indian Law Clinic, has written:

Lawyering which respects those who comprise the community as being capable and indispensable to their own representation and which seeks to understand the community yields far different results both for the community and the lawyer.  Self-determination is important to lawyering which benefits the community and the people within that community.  If the lawyer cannot respect a people’s culture, which means understanding a people’s goal toward self-determination, then the people will not be well-represented.

For Zuni Cruz, culture and community are overarching themes in any lawyer-client relationship. These themes are perhaps most visible in relationships in which distinctive cultures meet and cultural boundaries need to be navigated.  Indigenous law clinics then, and even the study of indigenous law more generally, provide an excellent context in which these themes can be explored.  The study of indigenous legal traditions and legal issues that face indigenous communities can be a valuable part of legal education - of great benefit to law students in understanding these important aspects of the lawyer-client relationship.  Indigenous law clinics can enhance these benefits through practical and experiential learning and, at the same time, assist in providing legal services to communities that often face challenges in access to justice.