Passion, purpose and a pro bono commitment

UQ Pro Bono Centre at the frontline of domestic and family violence law reform

An illustration of a mother protecting her child from a fist.

Image: Mary Long / Adobe Stock.

Image: Mary Long / Adobe Stock.

The independent Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce is an assembly of the brightest legal, political and advocacy minds in Queensland.

When Taskforce member Kelly-Ann Tansley invited key stakeholders to discuss the legal and social impacts of coercive control over dinner at Parliament House in March 2021, a trio of UQ Law students had a seat at the table.

Their invitation was secured through hard work, commitment and a sense of purpose.

Complementing their studies with volunteer work at the UQ Pro Bono Centre, the students worked with peak domestic and family violence body Ending Violence Against Women Queensland (EVAWQ) to research and prepare a report on coercive control law reform.

While dining at Parliament House was an unforgettable experience for third-year Bachelor of Laws / Bachelor of Journalism student Nina Sarapa, she said a personal highlight was knowing that something she wrote would be used to advise the Attorney-General on legislating an offence.

Three female students stand beneath the Australian coat of arms at Parliament House.

UQ students (L–R) Ailis Rogers, Sophie James and Nina Sarapa who volunteered on the EVAWQ project at Parliament House.

UQ students (L–R) Ailis Rogers, Sophie James and Nina Sarapa who volunteered on the EVAWQ project at Parliament House.

“The UQ Pro Bono Centre allowed me to feel what it’s like to be a part of change and I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to contribute to the conversation around coercive control,” she said.

Recent Queensland police data points to a steady rise in reporting of domestic and family violence in Queensland, forcing greater scrutiny of the laws needed to protect victims and survivors.

While domestic and family violence services are best placed to advocate for law reform, they are often under-resourced, under-funded and buckling under the weight of increasing caseloads.

 UQ Pro Bono Centre Director Mandy Shircore said student volunteers had prepared seven research papers and law reform submissions for services and organisations over the past two years.

Portrait image of Mandy Shircore. Mandy is wearing a blue and green top and has short blond hair.

UQ Pro Bono Centre Director Mandy Shircore

UQ Pro Bono Centre Director Mandy Shircore

In addition to coercive control, students worked with EVAWQ on a submission in response to the Criminal Code (Choking in Domestic Settings), researched dousing offences for Women’s Legal Service Queensland (WLSQ) and aided Basic Rights Queensland (BRQ) with a literature review on violence within the community services sector.

 “This is such an important issue, and we can help the many great organisations that work in this space – from research projects and drafting law reform submissions to assisting in court,” Shircore said.

 “The impact of our work is substantial, and we have more than 470 students registered with us as volunteers."

"For many, the opportunity to make a genuine difference by volunteering through the UQ Pro Bono Centre influenced their decision to study at UQ.”

Shircore said supporting community legal centres, industry bodies and advocacy groups in the fight for law reform and justice gave students an invaluable understanding of law in context.

 “The work our students undertake through the Centre is purely voluntary, it’s not for academic credit, so they see the real value of their law degree and feel a great sense of purpose in what they’re doing,” she said.

Image: Mary Long / Adobe Stock.

Illustration of a woman stepping out of a cage and smiling.

The Centre’s important focus on women’s rights and leading work in domestic and family violence law reform has attracted services and advocacy groups eager to tap into the Centre’s pool of emerging legal talent.

When BRQ needed to identify knowledge gaps and missing data, it engaged three UQ Pro Bono Centre students to undertake a literature review on community service workers’ experiences.

BRQ Project Leader, DFV Aware, Kathryn Rendell said this review may be the first step towards developing and implementing sector-specific workplace domestic and family violence prevention and response strategies.

“We are a specialist community legal centre, providing free advice, advocacy and legal service, and we do so with limited funding. So, partnering with UQ Pro Bono Centre on this project helped us maximise our resources,” Rendell said.

“We understand that students need opportunities to build relationships with organisations in the real world, and we knew that the skill set these law students were developing were suitable to conduct the kind of project we had in mind.”

WLSQ first partnered with the Centre in 2014, welcoming volunteer law students to assist in its day-to-day service delivery for the first time in the organisation’s history.

That relationship has flourished, with UQ law students now volunteering as duty lawyer court paralegals, research and administrative assistants and in WLSQ’s divorce clinic.

Two students talking over notes at a table at the UQ Pro Bono Centre.

UQ students volunteering their time at the Pro Bono Centre.

UQ students volunteering their time at the Pro Bono Centre.

UQ graduate and solicitor Julie Sarkozi (Bachelor of Arts ’89) said these passionate and efficient volunteers are intrinsic to WLSQ meeting the growing demand for its services.

“As a Domestic Violence Duty Lawyer, I relied upon my volunteer student paralegals to the extent where I did not know how I would be able to manage the demands of the court list without their support, sending in the next client with her forms in order, court orders obtained and copied, and intake completed,” Sarkozi said.

“The involvement and engagement of the student volunteers across their placement has been exceptional, especially as student involvement is completely voluntary.

“Partnering with the UQ Pro Bono Centre has given us the ability to assist more clients, provide support to busy lawyers and see the growth of law students as they go into the legal community."

“I have often been in the District Court and looked up to see an ex-Women’s Legal Service student volunteer, who is now the Judge’s Associate.”

The UQ Pro Bono Centre is raising funds to support the expansion of the Centre’s activities to rural, regional and remote areas of Queensland. If you would like to double your impact and support the campaign during UQ Giving Day on Wednesday 20 October, please visit UQ Pro Bono Centre – University of Queensland. All gifts are matched up to $50,000. Can’t wait for Giving Day? Donate today by visiting the Pro Bono Centre website.