The 2018 Fulbright Scholars with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Fulbright Chairman Peter de Cure, and Fulbright Commission Executive Director Thomas Dougherty (Photo supplied by Fulbright Commission)
UNSW Law alumnus Peerce McManus is Harvard bound on a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarship to undertake a Master of Law focusing on the role of law, public policy, and advocacy in improving outcomes for disadvantaged communities.
Since graduating from a Bachelor of Laws/International Relations in 2014, Peerce has practised in community justice organisations such as Legal Aid NSW and the Aboriginal Legal Service, as well as working at the Federal Court of Australia.
The “challenges of coalface lawyering” underlined the important impact of policy and politics in improving access to justice in Australia.
For many issues in our community “simply reforming, repealing or introducing new legislation is often not enough to address complex or systemic issues”, Peerce says.
“To achieve sustainable, forward-looking change requires a broader toolkit of skills that includes both legal and non-legal advocacy, stakeholder engagement, and lobbying for effective policy reform.”
Responding to housing issues and homelessness is a fundamental example of this for Peerce.
He cites changes to the NSW Residential Tenancies Act 2010 as an example of how laws aimed at assisting marginalised communities can in effect discriminate against them.
“Despite its mundane title, the NSW Residential Tenancies Act 2010 is a key battleground for human rights in NSW,” he says.
The act outlines the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants, including low-income people living in government-subsidised public housing.
New legislation in 2016 aimed at reducing ‘anti-social behaviour’ within public housing areas introduced a ‘one-strike policy’ that requires the eviction of any person charged with specific criminal offenses whether or not the person is or has been found guilty of an offence.
“They are then blacklisted from accessing other public housing and this effectively renders vulnerable persons homeless and can further disempowerment,” he says.
These kinds of “well-intentioned but ill-considered policies” can have damaging consequences for the most vulnerable groups of our society. He hopes to focus on similar issues of social justice through his scholarship at Harvard next month.
The Fulbright Program is the largest educational exchange program in the world aimed at increasing international research collaboration, cultural understanding, and the exchange of ideas.
Peerce believes Harvard University’s interdisciplinary approach to legal education as well as the expansion of his international network will give him a greater understanding of the issues and potential solutions in Australia.
“Fulbright creates a network of students and alumni from all over the globe who are dedicated to improving the public good in their particular field.
“This spirit of internationalism is inspiring, and it seems to be perhaps more important today than ever before.”
Peerce's interest in social justice led him to study law at UNSW. He volunteered at a snowboarding camp held on behalf of Youth Off The Streets, a community organisation that supports disadvantaged young people.
In 2013, recognising a gap in awareness around the issues affecting this group, he started RREAL – Rights and Responsibilities Education in Alternative Learning environments – a program that connects university students and disadvantaged youths to focus on key legal issues.
The program was shortlisted from more than 450 applications for the Foundation for Young Australians’ Young Social Pioneers program and has also received a social justice enterprise grant from the same organisation.
RREAL is currently developing an app to connect more young people, teachers, and support workers with information about the legal support services available to disadvantaged youth.
Peerce credits UNSW Law for shaping his academic understanding of social justice. “I think many students choose to study law to build the skills and knowledge to make a positive impact in the world.
UNSW Law inspired me not to lose sight of that goal.”
While the Harvard LLM may open up new opportunities in social entrepreneurship, Peerce is set on returning to Australia.
“Often when we picture a human rights lawyer we think of those who work with the UN or Red Cross or in developing countries – but there is so much work to be done in our own back yard.”