In 2014 an unexpected opportunity was presented to Elizabeth Lathlean when her husband was offered a position in a coastal university town in South Africa.
At the time, the 26-year-old Ms Lathlean was kicking career goals as a commercial lawyer for Salvos Legal in Sydney, where she also dedicated an average of 10 pro bono hours each week to working on human trafficking matters. That same year she took out the Lawyers Weekly 30 Under 30 Pro Bono Award, and was a finalist for the Young Gun Award.
Little did she know that Grahamstown, South Africa would be the scene of one of the most profound professional experiences of her life and would give her the chance to pursue social justice causes to a magnitude larger than she ever thought possible.
“There is no doubt a need for pro bono work and human rights advocacy in Australia but the opportunities and the need in South Africa are phenomenal.
“I certainly never would have considered South Africa if my husband didn't receive that out-of-the-blue email,” Ms Lathlean said.
After her move in April, Ms Lathlean took up work for the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), one of South Africa’s largest public interest law organisations. Located in Grahamstown, the coastal town where her husband took up his scientific post, the LRC office is situated right near the South African High Court seat in the Eastern Cape.
Without the requisite qualifications unique to the jurisdiction of her new home, Ms Lathlean worked as an ‘Australian attorney’ for the group, diving headfirst into human rights litigation. Her work mostly involved the right of school children to access education, but also included housing, social security and migration issues.
“All our work was undertaken pro bono, and the LRC relies on donations from the public,” Ms Lathlean said.
Being recognised as an Australian attorney meant that Ms Lathlean did not have the requisite local status to be the practitioner on record for a legal matter. Despite this technicality, she said her skills were highly regarded at the LRC. Ms Lathlean added that the work ethic of Australian lawyers is held in high esteem by South Africans.
“I was basically able to do everything else. My qualifications were not easily transferable to South Africa, but my skills certainly were,” Ms Lathlean said.
“I found the best thing was to learn by doing. I had an incredibly supportive and empowering manager, who gave me a lot of responsibility early on. This, combined with a really collaborative work environment, really made all the difference,” she said.
Among the interesting cases on which the Australian lawyer got to assist was a novel review application to the High Court. The LRC made the application in an attempt to move the government to meet its legal obligations to provide support staff in public schools. It was one of a number of successful High Court applications the LRC made to improve the conditions and infrastructure at disadvantaged schools.
Ms Lathlean also helped draft contempt proceedings against the South African government with respect to the constitutional right to education, as well as ensuring that education procedures across the Eastern Cape province were being followed according to the court order.
“My work, and the work of the office as a whole, was focused primarily on the realisation of the right to education for children: something that I took for granted in Australia [that was] was severely lacking for many children in South Africa, in violation of the rights enshrined in the South African constitution and international law,” Ms Lathlean said.
“We saw schools with no toilets, whose students and teachers feared being assaulted as they relieved themselves in the bushes, schools without sufficient desks and chairs, without water, without enough teachers, with students packed so tightly in classrooms they could hardly move, let alone learn, with collapsed classrooms, with students who had drowned trying to cross swollen rivers on the way to school, with students who walked hours each day just to try and learn.”
For all the stark contrasts characteristic of South Africa, not least the divide between rich and poor, 28-year-old Ms Lathlean today reflects on an enriching 13 months in Grahamstown. She describes the experience as immeasurably rewarding, both professionally and personally.
Ms Lathlean’s advice to other lawyers contemplating pro bono work in South Africa is to prepare for the unexpected. She also warned that the country has a way of seeping into your bones, making it difficult to part when the time arrives.
“I know that no work I ever do will quite compare to what I experienced at the LRC, and I know that whilst I have returned to the comforts of Western civilisation, my colleagues at the LRC continue to work tirelessly every day in the fight for justice and the realisation of basic human rights,” Ms Lathlean said.
“Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the need and be prepared to fall in love with South Africa's people, its culture and its landscapes. I know it is clichéd, but it changed my life and stole my heart.”
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