Rights ... and responsibilities

It can be challenging to explain what exactly the academic role is. Most of these conversations go something like this: “What do you do?” “I’m an academic at the Law School at Victoria University of Wellington.” “So you teach students who want to be lawyers? I guess you get the summers and holidays off then?”

Dr Nessa Lynch

“Well, teaching is just one part of my job. And not all my students go on to practise law. And around half my time is spent researching and writing about criminal law and criminal justice.” “So you write policy and reports for the Government and police and that kind of thing?” “Well… sometimes.”

For me, the essence of what it is to be an academic in a public university is contained in section 162(4) (a) (v) of the Education Act 1989: that is to be “the critic and conscience of society”.

What does that mean for those of us working in this capital city university? Especially those of us privileged to have an office with a view of the Beehive and Bowen House, within a stone’s throw of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and High Court?

It means academics have the right (and the duty) to provide independent and informed analysis on the direction of law, policy and practice.

With rights come responsibilities, however. We must remember that much of our academic research, even on New Zealand issues, is published in overseas-based journals, inaccessible without an expensive subscription.

We have the responsibility of ensuring this scholarly work is translated and disseminated for our practitioner and professional audiences through involvement in policy and law reform and public engagement through the media and other channels. We must balance conceptual criticism with the sometimes more difficult task of proposing and contributing to the kind of substantive, principled, evidence-based alternatives a policymaker can pitch to their Minister.

Our ‘critic and conscience’ role must also extend to our students—not in leading students toward particular ideological or political standpoints, but rather teaching them to question assertions and evaluate evidence.

A highlight of my work last year was partnering with JustSpeak—a non-governmental organisation cofounded by Victoria’s law students—to provide evidence-based information to government and to the public on the proposal to include 17-year-olds in the youth justice jurisdiction for most offences. This has been passed into law and will come into force in 2019.

I’m particularly proud of our recent graduates and current students who are leading and fostering informed debate—on the direction of our criminal justice system and, particularly, the overrepresentation of Maori—and are putting into practice the responsibility of being ‘critic and conscience’ of society.