Sasha Borissenko profiles criminal lawyer turned Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman’s book Know Your Place

The release of Simon Bridges’ new book, National Identity: Confessions of an Outsider has been disrupted as a result of the latest Covid-19 cluster, and, so too has the profile I had planned to pen for this column.

Seeing as I’ve profiled Judith Collins’ book, it’s only fair to profile the Green Party’s Golriz Ghahraman, who released a book, Know Your Place, last year.

Ghahraman went to law school at Auckland University initially to appease her parents as a means of complementing her aspirations of becoming an historian.

She soon found that she had a keen interest in human rights and after completing an internship with Amnesty International, she realised she could be most effective in an advocacy sense if she became a court lawyer.

After attending a career fair where there was an emphasis on corporate or commercial law, she sought help from a career counsellor, who said the best way to get into criminal law was to look in the Yellow Pages.

After completing the bar, Ghahraman didn’t have a family member or friend to be her moving counsel, but in a twist of fate she met barrister Jo Wickliff.

“Jo was in my parents’ little shop in Mount Eden and I was talking to my mum about needing a moving counsel. Jo popped her head around the corner and said ‘I’m a lawyer, I can help, if you need a job I know someone who’s needing a junior lawyer.’ She burst into tears. It was so serendipitous.”

After taking up a position as a baby lawyer, Ghahraman fell in love with the criminal law.

“You soon realise criminal law has a huge human rights element – you’re dealing with police powers, racism, and issues around access to justice. Criminal law is wild. Every person you meet you find it’s likely to be the worst day of their life. People may say, ‘how can you possibly represent guilty clients?’ But it’s all grey.

“You often genuinely don’t know if a person is guilty. And then you realise half of New Zealand can’t read or write, and most people in the justice system are victims of something far bigger. I realised I had very little understanding of humanity until I became a criminal lawyer.”

After three years, she applied for a masters in Oxford. This was disrupted following an opportunity to complete an internship with the UN in Tanzania, where her job was to interview witnesses for the Rwanda Tribunal. It meant that for the next two years, Ghahraman would be travelling back and forth from Tanzania and Oxford.

The contrast – where in Oxford you would have your room cleaned everyday, cooked meals, and prayers before meals – was shocking, she says.

“What people don’t realise is the vast amount of land the university has, which extends from Oxford all of the way to London. It’s absolutely beautiful there: big green trees, cricket pitches, and swans; they even filmed Harry Potter there.”

After contracting for the UN for a number of years, Ghahraman landed a permanent position as a prosecutor for the UN in Cambodia.

The work was relentless, she says. “The working culture is not dissimilar to what people experience in New Zealand commercial law firms – there are hideously long hours, a lot of drinking, and very few women in high positions of power. When you’re getting paid a lot and you’re in the middle of a poverty-stricken community, the experience was quite disillusioning.”

“It was like you were in the show, Mad Men. Then there’s an army of interns, who aren’t paid – ironic seeing as they’re working in human rights. It means you have to save before doing an internship and really only wealthy people can complete them, which is problematic from a representation and diversity standpoint.

“If you complete an internship there’s a policy where you can’t be hired by the outlet after finishing. Ultimately, it’s a CV building exercise.”

It’s in Cambodia where Ghahraman experienced anxiety. She experienced panic attacks, shortness of breath, and couldn’t sleep, and after a year-and-a-half, she decided to return to New Zealand.

Not wanting to buy a house, renovate, or settle down, Ghahraman threw herself into volunteering and working as a barrister. She was on the Criminal Bar Association executive for four years, created a prosecutor’s manual for Nigeria, and got heavily involved with the Green Party, for example.

She entered Parliament following the 2017 General Election. The first term was turbulent, she says. “Back benchers won’t have the same experience but Donald Trump introduced a Muslim ban shortly after I entered parliament so I was really busy, for sure.”

At first Ghahraman took umbrage with the media narrative describing her as “the first refugee” to be made a member of Parliament, over being “a human rights lawyer”. But she’s grown to stomach it.

“I realised pretty quickly that politics isn’t about the law – rather it’s about representing your community and legislation is simply a mechanism of change you have access to.

“Lawyers generally are uncomfortable being at the centre of attention, but I realised that my refugee background empowered the refugee community because it speaks to their experience. It’s important to see representation in the political sphere.”

Politics is far more adversarial than criminal law, she says. “A defence lawyer exists in a framework where you can argue opposing sides, concede, and walk away and shake hands. In parliament people live and breathe their opinions and seldom do they change their opinions.”

Heckling in the chamber during question time, for example, is bizarre, she says.

“Heckling is done with purpose where you’re trying to incite the person speaking to respond – if they do so, then it will be recorded in the Hansard documents. It blows my mind that people are shouting at you just so that you lose your train of thought. That would never happen in a court of law.”

Ghahraman otherwise says work can be fantastic, but equally exhausting as you’re required to be in Wellington Tuesdays to Thursdays. It’s an inaccessible system for people who have health issues or who have children, she says.

Where to from here? Ghahraman wants to start the conversation around what a post-prison world might look like. She also wants to focus on electoral reform, and voting rights for prisoners.

Does she have a 10-year plan? Of course not, she says.

• Sasha Borissenko is a freelance journalist who has reported extensively on the law industry.

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