In Viet Nam, community homesteads are the new law schools


Farmers in Viet NamVulnerable groups have among the lowest rates of access to justice services in Viet Nam. UN Photo.

In the past decade, Viet Nam has achieved impressive economic growth and human development, but it is increasingly evident that justice services have not been able to keep pace with these rapid changes.

UNDP justice surveys from recent years suggest that graduates from law school often lack practical knowledge of the realities of millions of ordinary Vietnamese citizens who seek legal services, even when their academic understanding of the law is sound. This not only affects their ability to empathise with and advise their clients on legal issues, it perhaps also accomodates a persistent reality that vulnerable groups-have among the lowest rates of access to justice services in Viet Nam.

The problem is two-pronged: on the one hand, literacy on legal issues remains low among the public, and on the other, law students are insulated from ground realities by an antiquated education system that relies on rote learning.

So we decided to make law school a little more interesting.

Starting this month, 12 students from the Foreign Trade University (FTU) in the Vietnamese capital will be setting aside their class-notes for an exciting summer project with UNDP that will see them living in communities they might one day represent in the justice system by providing representation in court, or through supplying a wide variety of legal services . 

The students, in pairs, will spend a weekend living with families in a community adjacent to an industrial park to hear their most pressing concerns and to walk alongside the residents as they go about their daily lives.

The law students selected for the program have little or no experience interacting with their fellow Vietnamese who work in industrial parks or who live as subsistence farmers.

To prepare the students, the faculty at FTU invited a professor of sociology to share her experiences working with marginalized communities, who explained that community members will be guarded about what they say, and will not be familiar with legal terms or even have basic ideas about what their rights are under Viet Nam law. After her presentation, the students conducted role-play sessions, with some acting as laborers sitting in their homes, while the others projected how they would approach the families to talk about the problems in their life where legal services might help.

“Be prepared to play games with the children, treat the elder people with utmost respect, do not use complicated language,” and “be ready for very conservative ideas to be expressed,” were some of the insights she offered students. Before the workshop began, students explained that they were not very clear about what they were getting themselves into. By the end of the workshop, however, they were excited about spending a weekend to learn from the villagers about what their lives are like, and how they can use their knowledge about the law and justice services to find some answers to their basic problems. The students now appreciate that they are going to these communities to listen and to learn about how the laborers and their families live so they can better understand how they can help them with legal needs.

The students will keep diaries and take notes about the concerns raised by the residents, and will return to FTU for a follow-up workshop with faculty and private lawyers to learn about the legal issues raised during their stay and how they can respond. Soon, the students will make a return trip to the village so they can help their fellow citizens who are living at the bottom of the economic ladder, and who may not be aware of how justice services can help improve their lives.

It’s not just us. Many universities in Viet Nam are keen to see how the project goes – eager to learn from it, and to replicate the model in their own curriculum.

This blog is part of an Asia-Pacific innovation series on how we’re harnessing new technology and new thinking to confront some of the biggest development challenges facing the region. Tell us what you think, and join the conversation on Twitter @UNDPAsiaPac.




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