Fresh start drives passion for justice
Benjamin Mugisho came to New Zealand as a young man, having spent almost 10 years without his family when his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo was torn apart by war. Since then he has completed a Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Bachelor of Laws at AUT. His early experience of war, crime and the loss of freedom drives Benjamin’s interest in criminal and international law. Benjamin recently joined Auckland Crown solicitors, Meredith Connell, following a period working for the Public Defence Service in West Auckland.
Why law? What drove you to pursue a career in law and in particular criminal law?
I grew up in a country that has traversed periods of calamities, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, internal conflicts and unending deprivation of basic human rights. For a significant portion of my childhood I experienced these unjust practises around me. So, from a very young age I have been burdened by the need for justice. When you grow up in a situation like I grew up in justice becomes a humane and natural feeling. I felt though that to be able to understand and apply justice I needed to study law and criminology. Criminology allowed me to evaluate why people commit crimes while with law I learn what I can do about it.
What was your biggest challenge studying and beginning a career in the law?
The biggest challenge at the start, and to a lesser extent now, is the culture shock. This includes both the way of living and language. I grew up with different experiences that people who live in New Zealand might never understand. But even then the little things were the hardest. I never watched ‘Friends’ or ‘Scooby Doo’, for example, so popular culture references or jokes were often lost on me. This means that people often saw me as awkward.
I also grew up speaking Swahili and French but by studying here in New Zealand I not only had to learn a new language but also study law in this new language!
Then there was friendship. I came to New Zealand at 20 years of age. I had made lifelong friends back in Congo that I had to leave behind. And coming here and making friends wasn’t easy because people had their cliques. But through every challenge and obstacle I had amazing people around me that encouraged me. I also dug deep and found the courage to face my obstacles head on and I think that is why I am here today.
You’ve moved jobs – what attracted you to the new role?
I think it comes back to my need for justice. I enjoyed every moment I spent with the Public Defence Service (PDS) as a defence lawyer because the experience taught me compassion and the importance of being aware that there are always two sides to a story. However, given the inhumane situations I have experienced, my ambition has always been in prosecution and my new job provides me with the opportunity to up my skills in this area.
A month or so in, has the new job lived up to your expectations?
Very much so, yes. When I discussed with my mentors about this job before my appointment two things were always emphasized – pressure and hard work – and these have been nonstop since I started. But I love it! Working under pressure is exhilarating for me. And doing this in one of the top law firms in the country is even more so. I get to work with the best jurists in the country. Meredith Connell is a firm that every aspiring lawyer wants to be. I wouldn’t trade this for the world.
What are your long-term plans? Do you have any future goals or challenges you’ve set your sights on?
At the moment, my immediate goal is to enjoy and focus in my current role. I like what I do and feel honoured to be able to contribute to New Zealand’s criminal justice system. In the long run, I would like to take my skills international and hopefully work in international criminal law. At the moment I work for the Centre for International Law Research and Policy, based in Brussels, Belgium, as a research fellow. This experience allows me to get a taste of international criminal law, an area I am quite passionate about.
What is your focus outside of work? I have read you are involved in an education-based NGO…tell me more.
Yes, I used to be part of an NGO whose aim was to encourage and build educational facilities in Eastern Congo. Unfortunately, as I got more and more busy with studies and work I had to give that up. Now I am a member of and volunteer at the Rotary Club in Auckland. I also volunteer at ‘Duffy Books’, an NGO that provides free books to children across New Zealand.
Do you have any advice for new or aspiring criminal lawyers, particularly those who may have had a similar journey to New Zealand as you?
For me, there is one thing that stood out – it is courage. You need to be willing to face whatever comes your way with courage. I will also say that it is important to put yourself out there. Be pro-active. Network and interact with people outside and within your profession. You never know until you say that first ‘hello’. Working hard is also important. You can only get out what you put in. In law, there are no shortcuts! In hindsight, I believe the pressure at law school is a taste of what the real world expects from lawyers.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Law is great and fascinating.