Six University of Waikato law graduates were winners in the Waikato Business Excellence Awards.
They all work at Community Law Waikato, which came first equal in the Not-for-Profit category of the awards, sharing first place with Hamilton City Council.
The six alumni are Juanita Bennett (Managing Solicitor), Angela Smith (Assistant Managing Solicitor), Justin Young (Solicitor), Rachael Mitchell (Solicitor), Alex Shadbolt (Solicitor) and Kirsty Tyson. They work with non-legal staff and a host of volunteers to deliver legal services in the region.
Providing legal advice
Community Law centres are located throughout New Zealand, 24 in total, and are funded mainly by government. They provide legal advice to people who aren't eligible for Legal Aid, or who cannot afford to pay for legal services.
Juanita Bennett has worked at Community Law for eight years. She says entering the awards made staff analyse and reflect on what they do. "It's a useful experience just entering the awards. You re-evaluate your processes and that allows you to identify how you might improve your service. To actually win our category was the icing on the cake."
Ms Bennett says they don't have a policy of hiring only University of Waikato law graduates, "but it's just turned out that way".
About 10,000 people use the Waikato service every year, and the permanent staff work with volunteers to assist clients. "Sometimes it's as simple as directing people to an appropriate service provider, while other cases might involve negotiation between different parties, or end up in court in a defending hearing," Ms Bennett says. "We deal with a huge variety of cases and people come to us from across the race and gender spectrum. Perhaps surprisingly our largest group of clients is Pākeha females."
Students volunteer as case workers
Every year, many current Waikato University Law students volunteer at the centre as case workers so they get work experience before they graduate.
Cheryl Green lecturer at Te Piringa Faculty of Law and its Director of Clinical Legal Education & Competitions is a member of the Community Law Trust Board. She says she encouraged the staff to enter the awards.
"They do a marvellous job, providing an essential service with very limited resources. They're delivering high-quality legal advice without compromise. It's wonderful for the staff to get recognition for their work. And our law students certainly reap the benefits of being able to work at the centre too," says Ms Green.