Harvard Legal Aid Bureau Student Attorneys Take Case to Federal Court

Harvard Legal Aid Bureau student attorneys Nicholas O. Pastan and Breana M. Ware presented their closing argument last Wednesday at the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, where they asked a judge to reject a petition to return their client’s children to Canada.

Since the case involved the Hague Convention, an international agreement regarding cross-country custody issues, Pastan and Ware had just six weeks to prepare for the trial—all while handling the workload of a Harvard Law School student.

The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau accepted the case in October to help the client, who fled Canada last fall with her children after years of alleged sexual and emotional abuse, procure an abuse prevention order against her former partner.

However, in December, Pastan was notified by the U.S. State Department that the children’s father had filed a petition pursuant to the Hague Convention, which protects a parent’s custody across international borders but does not apply if the child is subject to a grave risk of physical or psychological harm, according to Ware and Pastan.

Very few cases that the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau takes on end up in federal court, and even fewer are brought before a judge in merely six weeks, according to HLAB clinical instructor J. Verner Moore. After factoring in the language barrier—the client spoke Haitian Creole and French—the case proved to be exceptionally difficult.

“At the Legal Aid Bureau, we don’t do too many of these cases,” Moore said. “These are things a lot of lawyers never do during their career, and here are Nick and Breana doing them during law school.”

In addition, the entire burden of the case lies on the defendant—Pastan and Ware’s client—to prove that the children were removed from Canada without violating the Hague Convention.

Moore noted that Pastan and Ware returned from winter break early and began working on the case while also shouldering the workload of intensive three-week, winter term classes.

“Whatever they had to do, they did it,” Moore said. “It was just a delight working with them.”

Ware and Pastan said they took away a great deal from the experience.

“I almost certainly will not get this experience during the rest of my time at Harvard Law School, and it might be years even as a practicing attorney before I’m one of two attorneys or something on a federal case,” Pastan said.

However both noted that the case was much more than something to put on their resumes.

“We hopefully made the process a little less painful and anxiety-ridden for [our client],” said Ware, who added that developing a relationship with the client figured most in her experience.

“The thought of her having to go back to the situation that she was in before coming to the U.S. is so devastating that being able to represent her and to let her get a new start with her and her kids is really exciting,” Pastan said.

The case remains open as Pastan and Ware await the judge’s decision, but Moore said that he feels optimistic that the decision will go their way.

—Staff writer Tyler S. Olkowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @OlkowskiTyler.