Pro Bono Stars: University of Hawai‘i hero

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By Sherry Karabin

Editor’s note: While American Bar Association rules state that all lawyers have a professional responsibility to provide pro bono services, there is no such mandatory rule for law students. Still, law students provide far more hours than the average attorney.

The Class of 2019 performed more than 4.38 million hours of legal services, an average of around 221 hours per student. That totals more than $111.5 million in free legal services.

In celebration of these efforts, we profile four students who’ve gone above and beyond.

 

Prior to the pandemic, students attending the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law had to perform 60 hours of pro bono service, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, it’s now 30. But that hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of 2L Devin C.K. Forrest.

A native of the Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi, Forrest understands all too well the culturally significant role that the state’s Taro farmers play in keeping ancient traditions alive for future generations of Hawaiians.

So when several massive storms during the spring and summer of 2018 virtually wiped out the Taro fields and destroyed parts of the traditional irrigation system in Waiʻoli Valley on Kauaʻi, he immediately realized the gravity of the situation.

“Farming and fishing are interwoven into the history of our cultural traditions,” Forrest said. “If farming were to go away, this prime farming land could be bought up and used to build million-dollar homes and the waters diverted for some other non-traditional purpose.

“I still have family members who are Taro farmers so I have a personal stake in preserving this tradition.”

In this instance, the key to doing so is to secure a land easement in order to repair the ancient irrigation system and a long-term water lease between the Waiʻoli Valley Taro Hui and the Hawaiʻi Board of Land and Natural Resources (Land Board), a project Forrest began working on long before he was eligible to receive school credit.

Forrest, who earned his bachelor’s in Hawaiian language and master’s in Hawaiian language and literature from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is uniquely suited to accomplish the task, which involves extensive research to find old deeds and conveyances, all of which has to be translated from the Hawaiian language to English.

Forrest started volunteering with the School of Law’s Native Hawaiian Rights and Environmental Law clinics a few years before he started classes in 2019.

During his fall 2L semester, he completed the Environmental Law Clinic, where he remained laser-focused on the Taro project, spending most of his time researching the history and land tenure of the area prior to western contact in the 1700s and into the present day.

He’s now continuing his efforts in the Native Hawaiian Rights Clinic, working on water rights and policy for the Waiʻoli Valley Taro Hui. Together, the two courses will fulfill the law school’s six-credit clinical requirement.

In addition to the clinics, he’s performed at least 100 hours of pro bono service just since July 2020 to ensure the project is a success.

His mission then and long after he graduates law school, he said, is to protect Native Hawaiian rights, with a focus on intellectual property rights associated with traditional and customary practices.

“Devin is incredibly committed to our community and has taken an expansive view of service that extends well beyond what is required,” said law professor Kapua Sproat, director of the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law and the Native Hawaiian Rights and Environmental Law clinics. “Our work is about ensuring that Native Hawaiian practices can survive this transition into a modern legal system.

“Some of these Taro farmers were born on and continue to steward the same farms as their parents, or even their great-grandparents,” she said. “This is a unique and centuries-old Native Hawaiian tradition reliant upon access to land and free-flowing water from streams.

“Neither was a problem until after the 2018 floods when government regulators informed the farmers that the intake for their traditional irrigation system was on state land and now needed a slew of permits or exemptions. For centuries, they farmed in peace and this wasn’t even an issue.”

The documents Forrest has researched and translated helped date the Native Hawaiian system to the 15th century and establish the farmers’ indigenous water rights, said Sproat. 

The work has laid the foundation for cultural impact and environmental impact assessments. 

The clinic is seeking a 65-year water lease so the farmers can continue to operate without interruption.

While the Land Board has granted the farmers a perpetual easement for the irrigation system, the fate of the water lease hasn’t yet been decided, so Forrest and the other clinicians are still hard at work.

“I hope the farmers will get the lease, but who knows how long it will take and how many years it will cover,” said Forrest. “And we still have a ways to go until the Land Board will consider their application, including setting stream flow standards and completing the environmental review process.

“Because of the pandemic, more people have moved to Hawaiʻi and some of the new residents want to change the character of the community, which is why it’s more important than ever to secure protection for this ancient way of life so that it remains and is perpetuated for generations to come.”