Are you ready to begin your Rangi journey?

Joanna Swaney 1998-1992

I left school at the end of 1992 and went to Otago University to study law and science. I graduated with an LLB and a BSc in ecology. I then moved to Wellington where I completed the Professional Legal Studies Course for admission as a barrister and solicitor. While at university I thought that a job in environmental law and/or policy was where I was heading, but on being admitted, I applied for a job working for the Residence Appeal Authority, one of several tribunals that dealt with immigration appeals. I had studied international law and international human rights law, so it was an area of interest for me albeit not where I thought I would end up working. It turned out to be a happy accident that has shaped my career.

I worked in Wellington for about two and a half years, the job being an opportunity to gain wide experience in a judicial setting as well as a secondment to the immigration policy team which at the time was part of the Department of Labour. I then took the decision to travel, deciding to pack up and move to London for what I thought would be a couple of years to work a bit and travel a lot.

Joanna Swaney and sister Pip

Twenty-three years later I am still living in London. My first job lasted precisely three days – it was with a small law firm doing housing and immigration law. I was presented with an enormous pile of files on the floor beside a desk and was essentially told to get to it without any enquiry as to what I knew or any supervision. It wasn’t for me, but the one thing that did leave a lasting impression in those three days was a trip to Liverpool to accompany a young Afghan asylum seeker to his interview with the Home Office. He had to explain why he had fled Afghanistan and sought asylum in the UK. He was in fear of the Taliban and gave an account of how he had been treated.

I soon moved to a rights-based law firm which had a reputation for defending the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in society. I worked there for just over seven years doing predominantly human rights, asylum, and public law. I applied for my first judicial appointment in 2005 and to my surprise, was successful. I started as a part time judge in 2006 and continued to work full time as a solicitor. After leaving the law firm, I worked for a variety of not-for-profit organisations, continuing to represent clients in human rights, asylum, and public law, as well as managing a pro bono project to assist children obtain British citizenship which is not a birth right for children of parents without the permanent right to live in the UK. I added a couple more judicial appointments, being appointed as a social security judge and an immigration judge and had a very varied portfolio career for several years. In 2017 I decided to apply for a full-time judicial appointment and have been a full-time judge since March 2018. I now sit mainly in the Immigration and Asylum Chamber but am also appointed to the General Regulatory Chamber which is a tribunal that hears appeals relating to all aspects of regulatory law. I hear appeals in environmental law, animal welfare law, information rights law, and immigration services.

I have managed to fit in quite a bit of travel as well. I’ve spent many long weekends in numerous European cities, as well as longer trips further afield. Some highlights include travelling round Morocco by train; travelling overland from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian express, staying in homestays along the way; Venice, which despite its reputation as being crowded, expensive and a bit smelly, is one of my favourite places in the world; Yellowstone National Park in the winter; Cuba from one end to the other and everywhere in between; and Albania, which as well as being incredibly interesting has some of the best and cheapest coffee I’ve had anywhere.

Two gentlemen in Trinidad, Cuba

What is your greatest achievement to date?

My greatest achievement to date is the difference that I have been able to make in the lives of my clients and now the appellants who come before me. Asylum seekers are some of the most vulnerable people in society. They have fled their home and everything they know because they fear persecution simply because of who they are, whether it is because of their political or religious beliefs, their sexual identity, their race, or in some cases, even their gender. As a solicitor I was able to help directly; as a judge I ensure they are listened to and regardless of the outcome, they come away knowing that they had a fair hearing.

Asylum seekers face all kinds of challenges including being removed from everything that is familiar – friends, family, language, culture, food, even the weather. They often need help not just with their asylum claim and regularising their immigration status, but with getting their children into school; accessing accommodation and support; accessing medical treatment; learning a new language; finding work; and a multitude of other legal and practical issues. I was able to help resolve the practical matters, but my clients often also had significant emotional needs. Many asylum seekers have poor mental health because of their experiences in their home country, but also because of what they experience on their journey to safety and even after arrival while their situation is precarious.

Family separation is difficult, but family reunion can be just as fraught. I represented many women from male dominated societies who fled either alone or with their children, leaving their husbands behind. On arrival in the UK, they had to learn to be independent, to make decisions and to play a role that would never have been open to them in their home country. Their goal was invariably to be reunited with their husband and father of their children, but this was often incredibly difficult. The arrival of their husband while a happy and much longed for event was also one that caused significant difficulties for some.

The husbands often arrived expecting to simply resume their role as the head of the household without any understanding of just how much things had changed for the women during the period of separation. Navigating the change of dynamic in their relationships, playing catch up learning a new language, and adapting to how life in society operates, while at the same time trying to preserve their own cultural and religious identities was extremely difficult for some families and I often felt more like a social worker or marriage counsellor than a solicitor. My job as a solicitor was demanding, but hugely rewarding.

What is your favourite memory from school?

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at school, and it is hard to pick just one memory. I loved school camps and field trips and the sixth form biology field trip to the Boyle River was one that sticks in my mind. I remember having to take water samples from the river and my good friend commenting that my legs were turning blue, but not offering to help. It wasn’t all hard work though – one night we went down to the river and found a hot water spring and sat there in the hot water under the stars in the freezing cold, with a few flakes of snow falling. Studying biology and having the chance to learn in the field was one of the things that interested me in studying ecology.

Do you have any words of advice for today’s students?

I have two pieces of advice for today’s students. The first is make the most of every opportunity that comes your way, even if it doesn’t seem like something you are interested in and regardless of your apprehensions. If I hadn’t spoken to a young Moroccan man on a train coming into Fez, I would never have experienced the Medina from a local’s perspective, would never have been invited to share a meal with his family, and I certainly wouldn’t have been in a position of having to estimate how many camels Dad would require as a dowry! It will never be easier to make the most of opportunities than when you are at school, supported by family, friends and the school community. If you develop a habit of saying yes to new experiences, it will stay with you and enrich your life in ways that you probably can’t imagine now.

The second is to celebrate others for the things that make you similar rather than focusing on the things that make you different. The more I meet people from all over the world, from different faiths, cultures, and all walks of life, the more apparent it is that despite superficial differences, deep down we all have the same fundamental concerns and interests.