Black Law Students Take on Projects in South Africa

Left to right, front to back, UVA Law students Deitra Jones, Jeremy Lofthouse, Camille Grant, Jessica Douglas, Kirsten Jackson, Keisha James and Amber Strickland sit on the bench of the Constitutional Court.

Members of the University of Virginia’s Black Law Students Association recently researched and worked on human rights issues in Johannesburg, South Africa.

As part of a nine-day annual service trip over winter break, seven law students researched and wrote briefs on cases with South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre, which was co-founded by two of Nelson Mandela’s defense attorneys and functions similarly to the NAACP in the United States.

“Pro bono opportunities have been an invaluable part of my UVA Law experience, but working in South Africa added another level to those experiences,” said second-year law student Amber Strickland, the association’s community service chair. “Not only were we able to engage with real-life application of the law, but we were also able to do so in a country whose history mirrors our own in some ways.”

The Legal Resources Centre is involved in a broad scope of human rights work, including environmental issues. Because South Africa’s constitution only came into effect in 1997, often there isn’t much precedent to look back on when a case is heard, Strickland said. As a result, many considerations are more focused on fairness and justice.

Also on the trip were first-year law students Jeremy Lofthouse, Camille Grant, Kirsten Jackson, Keisha James and Deitra Jones, and second-year law student Jessica Douglas.

The group had the opportunity to learn more about apartheid, civil rights, South Africa’s history and its current challenges. About half of the cases South Africa’s Constitutional Court hears each year are LRC cases, Strickland said. The group visited South Africa’s Constitutional Court and learned about procedure, how cases come before the court and how LRC attorneys prepare briefs for cases.

“When I saw that there would be an opportunity to travel abroad with students and help in a human rights area, I was sold on UVA Law. It was very rewarding to be in South Africa,” Lofthouse said.

Strickland said South Africa’s history of racial strife, not unlike that of the United States, offers a window into different ways to address injustice.

“It’s interesting to look at what other countries have done and how it has worked, either positively or negatively,” Strickland said.

The UVA group assisted the LRC with researching and summarizing early apartheid cases argued by former Chief Justice of South Africa Arthur Chaskalson; investigating the possibility of regulating how close people can and should live to a decommissioned mine; and researching constitutional cases for presentations to LRC attorneys.

“My most memorable experience from the trip was speaking with local residents and learning how their community faces various socioeconomic issues and how important LRC’s work is to their community,” Grant said.

The group also visited members of a community who had been evicted from their homes. The students, along with the LRC attorneys, worked with the residents to determine details of the evictions, what documentation they had and what would be needed to regain access to their housing.

“The experience sparked a greater interest in studying more about the South African constitution and doing comparative constitutional research,” Strickland said. “I’m thinking more about seeking job opportunities that one day will touch on rule-of-law issues, shaping and drafting law, and the value of looking beyond the legal system we’re used to. There is so much value in what we can learn from other countries and different perspectives.”

In recent years, Black Law Students Association members have also traveled to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Uganda on service trips.

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