Working at the Royal Commission

We talked to UC Arts graduate Michael Lee about his work as an Information Assistant with the Canterbury Earthquake Royal Commission.

What is the Canterbury Earthquake Royal Commission?

The Canterbury Earthquake Royal Commission was established in 2011 in order to investigate why certain buildings collapsed in the February earthquake and resulted in a loss of life. Currently, we are working on the public hearing for the CTV Building - our biggest hearing - and it is expected to take 8 weeks. As students from several countries died in this collapse, the result of this hearing is a matter of international significance. Ever since the CTV hearing started it has often featured in the media.

Are you enjoying working for the Royal Commission?

Yes - it's a fascinating environment to work in, knowing the amount of work that goes on behind our public face. It's a svelte little team and, since we're brand new, there is a lot of flexibility. Even though I'm the youngest member both by age and seniority, everybody is willing to listen to ideas I might have about improving or simplifying our processes. Aside from that, there's also a satisfaction from seeing your work represented in the media.

What does an Information Assistant do?

We manage information to ensure the inquiry, and by extension the hearings, run smoothly. We are in charge of handling all the material and evidence that comes in to the Royal Commission. We give it an ID, log it into our database, manage the website database, and produce hard copies for the hearings. 

What is your typical day?

At the moment, it starts with logging and printing transcripts from previous hearings. When the hearing starts at 9:30, we generally watch the live stream as we have to publish documents each witness refers to onto our website (and also because we like seeing our lawyers in action). We also have to make sure the Bundles (folders used for hearings) are up to date. Recently, I have also been translating Royal Commission documents into Mandarin and Japanese for publication on the website. I've also received training for running the document display program (Trial Director) used in the hearings, so soon I may get to actively take part in that too.

Are there any special challenges in working with such sensitive material?

We do handle a lot of confidential material, and obviously we can (for example) be dealing with witness statements long before they are made public in the hearing. But in practice we don't usually have time to look at it, and anyway it's mostly common sense - I simply don't discuss my work in public or on social media websites

What did you do your degree in?

I finished a BA in History and Japanese in 2010, and a B.A. Hons in History in 2011.

How do the skills learnt in your degree contribute to your work?

It took me a few days to realize that the Commission has a lot of elements of being in a legal work environment. As such my degree doesn't contribute directly, but transferable skills like time management, work ethics, and information analysis are always useful. My language skills have also come in handy from time to time. With a history background, it's also interesting to be investigating an important event in Christchurch's recent history, as well as seeing how the archiving process works in practice.

Thank you Michael, anything else you'd like to add?

It's hard to overemphasize how nice everybody on the team is. While our job is very serious and occasionally stressful, everybody is always polite, open-minded, and efficient. Occasionally it's also very surreal - I work with a Sir and a Queen's Counsel, and I've shared chips with His Honour Justice Mark Cooper over after-work drinks.