Protecting human rights through the rule of law

Each year, Allens completes thousands of hours of pro bono legal work to promote access to justice and protect human rights. This year, Allens Partner Clint Hinchen led two matters for pro bono client the Human Rights Law Centre. We caught up with Clint and Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, to explore the human impact of the hours invested in pro bono work.

Instructed by the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), Clint led two teams of Allens lawyers to pursue the rule of law and improve the lives of two vulnerable young women. While the work was miles apart from his day-to-day work in corporate insolvency and restructuring, the experience was life-changing for all involved.

'For clients like those with whom we worked alongside the HRLC this year, whose legal issues affect their lives dramatically, our work can make an enormous difference in helping them to improve their lot in life,' Clint said.

In the first matter, the Allens team worked to secure the transfer to Australia of Hiruni*, a young woman detained on Nauru, who had fled persecution in her home country along with her brother and son. Hiruni had intended to join her husband, who had earlier fled to Australia and been granted a protection visa. Because the law had changed when Hiruni, her brother and her son came by boat to Australia, they were detained and sent to Nauru.

After enduring years of separation from her husband and harmful conditions on Nauru, Hiruni was assessed as having a high risk of suicide. Her son was also assessed as having serious mental health issues. Medical consultations concluded that Hiruni required urgent medical treatment at a tertiary medical facility equipped to handle patients.

Given the urgency of her medical situation, Allens and the HRLC instituted proceedings at the Federal Court, seeking an injunction that the government take all steps within their power to ensure the client, her brother and her son be transferred to Australia. The team sought an urgent hearing and prepared the application in less than three days, working with psychiatric experts to conduct consultations and prepare reports as well as preparing supporting evidence.

The Court agreed with the team's submission that the imminent risk of harm justified an injunction requiring the prompt transfer of Hiruni and her family to Melbourne. Hiruni is now receiving medical treatment and has been reunited with her husband. Her son has also been reunited with his father, from whom he was separated at only one year old.

'Hiruni's case is an example of the work we do with pro bono firms to deliver life-changing human rights outcomes for the people involved,' said Hugh.

'But even more than that, this work helps to change government policy and make it more humane. Allens has an incredibly strong reputation backed by tremendous resources and expertise. When Allens works to advance the human rights of vulnerable people, governments pay attention. This work delivers results and changes people's lives.'

In the second matter, Clint and a second Allens team teamed up with the HRLC to work with Jenny*, a young Aboriginal woman incarcerated in a Western Australian prison who was about to have a baby.

Jenny wanted to keep her baby with her in prison, consistent with the WA policy on women in prisons and medical advice that it was in both the baby's and the mother's best interests. However, the Acting Commissioner of Corrective Services and the Superintendent of the prison resolved to take the baby away due to a lack of nursery accommodation in the prison. An independent report indicated it would be possible but inconvenient for the State to allow Jenny to keep her baby, but the Department of Corrective Services would not undertake to do so.

The Allens and HRLC team worked with the Aboriginal Legal Service WA to liaise with the Department to ensure Jenny remained with her baby. They pursued immediate arrangements to allow her to keep the baby with her in prison, as well as two back-up alternatives.

The Department initially refused the request for an absence permit and Jenny experienced a traumatic childbirth by caesarean delivery in hospital. The team continued to negotiate with the Department to dispute the reasons for refusal of the absence permit, seek an undertaking that Jenny would not be separated from her baby, and highlight Jenny's medical situation. They also prepared an urgent application for judicial review of the decision. This was prepared overnight due to the urgency of the situation.

At the eleventh hour, the Acting Commissioner of Corrective Services agreed to make another room available in the prison for Jenny and her baby, ensuring they remained together and preventing the need to issue proceedings.

'This was a case where we had someone in a really terrible situation facing the prospect of having her baby removed from her simply because the state said it didn't have the basic resources needed to provide the accommodation,' Hugh said.

'It took the threat of credible legal action backed by a major law firm – which mounted a legal challenge under immense time pressure against the deadline of a baby's removal from her mother - for the government to pay attention.'

While deeply affecting on a personal level, Clint believes pro bono work in human rights is a responsibility.

'On a personal level, it's hard not to be affected by the experience of helping someone who's suffering and who doesn't have the means to get out of their current situation,' Clint said.

'The pro bono matters with which I've been involved this year bring home to me how privileged we are as a firm to be able to use our skills and expertise to improve outcomes in the broader community.

'We are so well placed given our skills and our position in the community to achieve outcomes that are not just ok or good, but really great outcomes that will be life-changing.'

* Names have been changed

Allens teams:

Hiruni's matter: Clint Hinchen (Partner), Sophie Matthiesson (Senior Associate), Elise Rutherfurd (Lawyer), and Zainab Mahmood (Lawyer).

Jenny's matter: Clint Hinchen (Partner), Lucas Tan (Associate).

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