Slater and Gordon Ringwood law clerk Stephanie Burn may only be 22, but she has already lived out her dream of fighting human rights abuses in Africa.
Ms Burns, a fifth year Monash University student, has just returned from her one-month volunteer trip to Ghana, in West Africa, where she worked as a legal intern for the not-for-profit Human Rights Advocacy Group in Accra, which provides free legal help to in-need individuals, communities, institutions and groups.
Ms Burns said her work ranged from making written complaints to police bodies to writing letters of demand on behalf of clients, including one who had been on remand for three years without a trial date and another who had been given an unfair sentence of 65 years imprisonment. She said she also undertook research and data analysis on topics such as sex workers and child marriage, and helped prepare media materials for issues like child trafficking and women’s issues.
"I thoroughly enjoyed my volunteering experience in Ghana. I had the opportunity to work with one of the most recognised human rights lawyers in West Africa, Nana Oye Lithur, and to work on a range of different legal tasks,” Ms Burns said.
“It was an eye-opening experience, particularly because the legal work was often impeded by the Ghanian justice system itself, or the authorities in charge of that system. It certainly made me realise how lucky we are to live in a country with an independent judiciary and a fair justice system that seeks to rehabilitate offenders, rather than imprison them until the end of their days."
Ms Burns said the Human Rights Advocacy Group also had a role in training locals on their legal rights, and training police and government bodies on modern Ghanian law. She said unfortunately, human rights abuses were commonplace in the country, a place she found both beautiful and confronting.
"Although the efforts by the Ghanian Government have yielded positive results in several areas such as reconstruction of infrastructure, development of tourism and education, I found it both enlightening and distressing that in a country that has enjoyed democracy for more than 50 years, human rights abuses could still be rampant," Ms Burns said.
"Working within the Ghanian justice system taught me to be patient, persistent and determined when assisting clients who have been subjected to human rights abuses."
Slater and Gordon Victorian state practice group leader Cath Evans said the firm was pleased to support its student lawyers and law clerks gain such valuable and life-changing experience.
“Stephanie’s experiences will no doubt enrich her future in the legal industry. It will give her real depth and understanding with dealing with clients,” Ms Evans said.
“She has certainly returned to Slater and Gordon with a steely resolve to make a difference with the work she does.”