Deborah Manning: ADLS Refugee and Immigration Law committee

This profile is part of a series on ADLS committee convenors

Deborah Manning

Deborah Manning

Where do you work, what’s your role?
I have my own chambers in Auckland’s Victoria St East, where I work with two junior barristers and a team. The practice is focused on refugee and human rights law.

Where did you study?
At the University of Auckland where I completed a conjoint degree, a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in New Zealand history and politics, and an LLB (Hons) degree.

What’s been your career to date?
After graduation, I was able to hit the ground running as I had been clerking for a barrister who specialised in refugee law, and I was given the opportunity to work there as a junior barrister.

I knew the office, the files and the law. Soon after I started there was a big APEC meeting in Auckland and a lot of asylum seekers were detained in Mt Eden prison. I represented many of them, who were in harsh conditions.

Not long after that, 9/11 happened. Again, there was high detention of refugee claimants, and then there was the Zaoui case.

I have always been concerned about issues of social justice. My Mum says it’s because of our Irish social justice background. I was brought up with values of looking after the vulnerable and being of service to others in the community. That’s what has informed my professional practice.

Refugee law operates on the line of law and politics, where executive power and the law converge.

It considers questions such as what role should the judiciary play in who gets to stay here? How do we balance human rights and executive power? How do we deal with classified information?

Refugee issues are often in the media, touching on the use of executive power. There are often human rights issues that need balancing and here in New Zealand we’re still trying to figure that out.

Getting back to my career: I was a junior barrister for five years. Then the Zaoui case came along and I was involved in that for five years.

Then I worked overseas (for three years), where I was responsible for the legal office of a human rights organisation in Geneva. I was in daily contact with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, working for clients on cases in four main areas of serious human rights abuse:

  • Victims of extra-judicial execution
  • Victims of torture
  • Victims of disappearance
  • Victims of arbitrary detention

My time in Geneva was professionally challenging. It was invaluable to see up-close how the UN human rights processes worked and to utilise previously underused human rights procedures on behalf of victims of human rights abuses.

My conclusion is the UN human rights system is both strong and fragile.

It is strong in terms of the independent experts who work within the system but it is constantly under attack by member states, particularly from those who are the worst abusers of human rights.

The credibility of the UN human rights system also depends on information from civil society and there is a vast imbalance of resources between non-governmental organisations and reporting governments.

We should never take our human rights framework and systems for granted. They need constant protection and reinforcement by civil society and independent institutions, such as the judiciary.

After that, I returned to New Zealand and worked in private practice, mainly in refugee law.

Here in New Zealand, there is a lot of human rights work. In some cases it is about the lens you bring to cases.

As practitioners, we can always be thinking about what human rights framework could be applied to that area of law. For those who are interested in working in international human rights, there are opportunities and it helps to have a second language.

I would encourage young practitioners to consider how they can think of advocating for the most vulnerable in their human rights legal work rather than joining established programs, which often tend to focus on prosecutorial work.

I also lecture part-time at AUT Law School in refugee law and clinical legal studies, and teach part-time at the College of Law, where I’m an adjunct instructor in the professional legal studies course.

I do this teaching work because I am interested in how we’re forming our legal profession. What cultural values are we instilling in our law students and graduates? What values are we encouraging?

I believe all lawyers have a role to play in promoting the rule of law and the administration of justice. My hope is that law students are actively talking about these subjects and seeing themselves as an important part of civil society and the rule of law.

How long have you been a member of ADLS?
As a new practitioner I realised there were a number of refugee lawyers, but no organising group for them. I was the founding convenor of the ADLS Refugee and Human Rights Law committee, and have been involved ever since.

How long have you been involved with ADLS committees, and which committees have you worked with?
I have a strong belief that ADLS committees should be as representative as possible, and promote proactive dialogue between the levels of the refugee determination system and Immigration New Zealand.

Refugee law is a difficult area to practise in. The number of refugee lawyers has been declining in recent years and there are systemic issues such as poor mental health services, poor legal aid remuneration rates, and lack of interpreter availability.

It is hard to assist clients who are detained or who are here unlawfully, and there are poverty-line issues as well. It’s hard to get instructions from clients who are hungry and who have nowhere to live.

The visa process is becoming more difficult, making it harder to access benefits and money.

Our work is relentless; we’re acting for the most vulnerable people who are stressed and afraid. Lawyers need to be the best possible representatives but it is difficult due to the unmet needs of our clients and, at times, an unbending and unreasonable system.

Why is committee work important?
We have an active committee in terms of engagement with decision-makers around determination processes.

There’s a long-standing positive and constructive relationship between the Bar and the Immigration Protection Tribunal.

For example, there was a busy time about two years ago when considering the timeframes in which hearings are set down. This led to a reasonable number of meetings and discussion between the tribunal and the Bar to develop an understanding of what a workable timeframe is.

There have been challenges with engagement with Immigration New Zealand. In the past year we have started to have better engagement at the general manager level and above; we’ve been able to start moving on issues.

Our committee is tenacious. We don’t give up on issues and persistently raise them and work on them from different angles.

We believe in professional and collegial dialogue on issues. ADLS is clear on what its role is and that’s been helpful with our engagement with others as stakeholders understand our role as advocates for the profession and the rule of law.

How do ADLS committees make a difference?
We’ve made a difference, ensuring that refugee claims are processed with enough preparation time, and monitoring determination processes to ensure refugee claimants can present their cases.

We’ve been actively involved with the Refugee Status Branch on important issues such as confidentiality of refugee information, mental health and rights of children.

There is more work to do, especially in the area of what “consultation” means. That’s a work in progress.

What’s been the most notable achievement or biggest focus of your committee in the past few years? Why was that important?
Our most recent achievement is to develop a CPD program with MBIE on the role of counsel in deportation issues.

This is significant for us as we wish to establish clear processes and clear points where counsel can be involved to advocate for the rights of those who are liable for deportation, and their families, which often involves the rights of children.

It has been great to see that happen as it is the result of many years of work.

What would you say to anyone thinking of becoming involved in an ADLS committee?
People should become involved as long as they’re prepared to do something and be a contributor.

If you can devote a couple of hours a month you can effect positive change for your area of law. It is a worthwhile and an important thing for practitioners to do.

What’s the biggest issue facing your practice area at the moment? And how does that affect lawyers and their clients?
How we understand and manage trauma in the refugee determination system.

The people we’re helping are highly traumatised. There is a lack of mental health services and we have to be better at looking after them.

There needs to be more care and support, not only for the clients but also for the legal professionals in this line of work.

What’s the best-kept secret about ADLS?
How effective and well-connected the organisation is. How supportive ADLS is of practitioners and the legal profession. ADLS is a very caring organisation.

If practitioners are having difficulty, I would encourage them to talk to ADLS. This level of professional support is why I’ve remained a member for so long.

To find out more about ADLS committees, contact Melissa Fini: e:

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