Five minutes with new Canterbury Dean of Law, Professor Ursula Cheer

Professor Ursula Cheer is well-known as the author of leading media law text, Burrows and Cheer Media Law in New Zealand, which has long been a “must have” for students, lawyers and journalists alike.

Ursula Cheer

She can also frequently be heard providing commentary and insights on air, television or in print, on a pot pourri of media law issues from cyber-bullying to defamation.

Now, with her appointment as Dean of Law at the University of Canterbury, she adds another dimension to a long and varied career, and becomes the first woman to hold the position at Canterbury and one of only a handful of female Deans ever in the country.

Becoming Dean completes a full circle for Professor Cheer, who graduated from Canterbury Law School some 30-odd years ago. After a spell in practice came stints working for the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister, before she heard the siren’s call of foreign shores and left for the United Kingdom.

There, amongst other things, she wrote a Masters thesis on censorship and worked for the UK Law Commission. But home eventually beckoned, and Canterbury University was lucky enough to attract her back in 1994, firstly as a lecturer and latterly as a Professor, teaching on her passion – media law.

Law News recently spent a few minutes touching base with Dean-elect Cheer, and had the chance to find out about what has led her to this point and what is in store for her going forward.

What have been your experiences as a woman in the legal profession?

“When I went through law school, one-third of the students were women – now it has completely swapped over and two-thirds are women and only one-third men. Within the profession, more women are entering it, but I think there is still a bit of a glass ceiling in terms of partnerships and the judiciary.

“Even within academia, where I am now, although there are plenty of women academics, it is not quite at 50% yet. There are certainly not as many women professors – at Canterbury, the first women professor in the Law School was appointed in 2011, and I was the second in 2012. The numbers are not proportionate to the population of women studying the law or in the profession.

“You’ve got high achieving individual women at the top [for example, heads of bench in the District Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court], but if there is not the system in place to support women coming up behind them, women are less likely to be appointed to those roles when they fall vacant. We need to work on the background processes to bring women through – the grass roots approach needs to change.

Do you think things are changing?

“One example I often use from when I was in practice is that if the young men were playing rugby at a national level, it was okay for them to take time off to play, but it was much more problematic for a woman to leave early due to family commitments.

“There is greater flexibility now, for example with more women working as salaried partners, and some men now doing it also, but I still think change is needed. The practice of law is exciting and stimulating, but rather than the men and women working in it constantly having to adapt, the profession itself needs to keep changing and give back a little in the other direction.

“Firms need to look at their structure and ensure that they are mentoring women coming through. A lot of workplaces have a gym in their building to encourage staff to be healthy – why shouldn’t firms think about encouraging a crèche to set up in their building and subsidising it? There would certainly be efficiency arguments in favour.

“Change is still happening in small steps. When you don’t have to ask me these questions anymore when this type of appointment takes place [a woman being appointed to a top role], that’s when we’ll know that we’ve made it.”

Is there anything you want to tackle in your new role?

“My goals and plans are to consolidate the good work that has been going on at Canterbury after a period of initiation and innovation that has been ongoing since the earthquakes. The previous Dean, Dr Chris Gallavin, was instrumental in getting a number of initiatives going, which I now want to ‘bed in’. I am not into ‘destructive thinking’, or changing things just for the sake of it.

“Canterbury is the only university to have started offering a Bachelor of Criminal Justice, which is a collaborative degree with the humanities and various other departments. We need to make this the best it can be – we are about to have our first graduates from this degree and we are looking at post-graduate options.

“We are working on a clinical legal programme which provides the necessary skills to be ‘workready’. We are working with the profession and the community to see how we can work together in terms of internship and other opportunities.

“Canterbury also has a strong international law programme which we are developing – there is plenty to be getting on with, and Christchurch will be an exciting place to be over the next five years.”

What is your favourite legal or political themed movie/book/TV series of all time?

“For a programme that raises fascinating contemporary legal issues, it has to be ‘The Good Wife’, although what some of those TV lawyers get up to to win their cases is a bit over-the-top and would result in striking off in New Zealand!

“Top movie of all time has to be ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, which has a trial at its heart and is still very fine in terms of saying something about the law, justice, human rights, and the integrity and bravery of lawyers.”

Burrows and Cheer Media Law in New Zealand, 7th Edition is available to purchase from the ADLS bookstore, priced at $152.17 plus GST ($175.00 incl. GST), or $136.95 plus GST ($157.49 incl. GST) for ADLS Members, plus postage and packaging. Visit www.adls.org.nz/ADLS-store; alternatively, please phone: 09 306 5740, fax: 09 306 5741 or email: thestore@adls.org.nz

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