Scottish University Law Clinic Network 2013

In June 2012, some intrepid Scottish law students and supportive non-students were involved in the first Scottish University Law Clinic Network event at the University of the West of Scotland. This brought together the five law schools hosting active student law clinics (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Strathclyde and UWS) and several other voluntary organisations and interested observers to discuss many different topics, such as the proper focus of law clinic activity (social justice or student development, but ideally both) and tips for proper supervision of law students. Although five law schools have since become four, after UWS “disinvested” in their law degree, the remaining four carried the pro bono baton forward to 2013 for a roundtable event at the University of Strathclyde on 7 June 2013, sponsored by the Higher Education Academy and the Law Society of Scotland.

In terms of student development, one thing I encourage students to do (or perhaps one thing I should encourage students to do more) is to revisit lecture or class notes soon after the event, perhaps by writing them up in bullet points, perhaps by drawing a mind-map or perhaps by writing a mini-essay. My blog serves as my public forum for doing that and I sought to put that technique into action at an earlier law clinic conference at LSBU on form and funding. Alas, on this occasion I was not able to take as detailed notes as I might have liked as I was tied up with speaking or chairing in four out of the five time slots, so a similarly lengthy reflection to my visit to London will not be provided here, but I will do my best to document what I can. I have already documented some of my thoughts and the insights of other delegates in a Storify story.

As with the 2012 SULCN event, a variety of things were discussed, that fact being demonstrated by this programme (PDF) of events. The main focus of the day was “Street Law”, on which you can find more information at the Street Law Inc website or in my earlier blog post. Ed O’Brien and David McQuoid-Mason are heroes of the Street Law movement and it was quite a coup for Donald Nicolson of Strathclyde and his students to secure such distinguished speakers to explain what Street Law was and then take delegates through some of the teaching techniques Street Law employs.

The better part of my notes come from the first session of the day, where (funnily enough) I was not speaking. This explained what Street Law actually is. For more detailed information, I refer you to the other resources I have linked to, but to explain roughly it is worth noting at the outset that whilst it is about law on the street it is not necessarily about the law relating to automotive offences or mugging. Street Law is a way of introducing the law to people in a practical and participatory manner, focussing on policy issues and the community in which a Street Law activity is based. Students get involved as teachers and campaigners, unlocking and simplifying law for people in general or for specific sub-sets of the population like school pupils, prisoners or minority groups.

What are the benefits to society? Two improvements to access to justice in the broadest sense of that term can be identified:

  1. practical education (in giving a rough-and-ready understanding of (for example) what rights you might have if you are under suspicion or being arrested); and
  2. reducing fear of the legal system (say by participation in a mock-trial).

Why should law schools get involved in Street Law? Well, if law schools are about education, the pedagogical (or andragogical) benefits of making students teachers can be acknowledged, given where that puts law students-cum-teachers on the so-called “learning pyramid”. A second educational benefit is that students can become sensitized to the problems of the community, perhaps by learning about the problems faced by a particular demographic or minority group. Further, start-up costs tend to be low, without the need for detailed paperwork, adequate insurance and proper training that a “live-client” clinic which offers advice and/or representation can need. This means Street Law can be an easier “in” for a university than going straight to students as quasi-lawyers. It can also be noted that most Street Law activities can swiftly dodge allegations that it is somehow a substitute for public legal support or that lawyers should be against it, which some student representation might be accused of (per a discussion I Storified between Niall McCluskey and me). Mind you, lawyers might be anti-Street Law if they do not want informed clients who question what they are doing (I offer no comment as to whether such lawyers do exist). Further, Street Law teaches students about the legal system as a whole, which includes an appreciation of what public legal support can be used for and what its role should be. Therefore it can have a role to play without upsetting the access to justice dynamic of a legal system: in fact, quite the opposite.

After that first session, some delegates attended an intensive Street Law course (like the one I blogged about previously), whilst others attended a session on Street Law models of operation. Here, Anna Robertson (the Student Director of Aberdeen Law Project) and Hannah Cosgrove (outgoing Student Director of the University of Strathclyde Law Clinic) explained what was happening in their respective communities. I chaired this session, with Ed O’Brien completing the panel to explain how these Scottish experiences chimed with his own. Both students explained their experiences at local schools, with O’Brien opining that mock trials were (to his mind) the best teaching experience for Street Law participants available, in terms of educating them and also in terms of transformational potential – a mock trial could be the very first time a school pupil thinks “hey, I could do something like this as a career”. Prison projects were also highlighted, including an acknowledgement of how carefully you might have to tread when teaching anything to do with prisoners’ rights and also an acknowledgement of the potential to overlook prison wardens, who might be equally receptive to a Street Law training programme. An entertaining demonstration of an interactive teaching method concluded the session.

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the various afternoon sessions in this blog, so I shall only mention the two I was involved with and even then I shall do so briefly. First, I was involved in a general chat about supervision of cases, where the various different models of the Scottish universities and Letterkenny Institute of Technology in Ireland were discussed. The last model was rather curious, to me at least. There, they do not give any advice, rather they refer to clients as “callers” and only give them information, whilst studiously avoiding anything other than face to face oral communication. This perhaps represents the relatively tentative stage of development the law clinic movement in Ireland is at, but it certainly gave an interesting contrast to the Scottish institutions.

The next session was about integrating clinical legal education into clinics, a subject I now know rather well. I gave a short presentation about where we might be going at Aberdeen, before Conor Doherty reflected his experiences as a student on a clinical course at Dundee, Sharon McLauglin described her experiences at Letterkenny, Rebecca Samaras explained matters at Edinburgh’s (currently postgraduate oriented) clinic and Donald Nicolson championed his new Clinical LLB model. Nicolson has taken something of a journey from his previously published work, which was overtly sceptical of any education that might put a student’s [educational] interest above a client’s interest, to his current position, but it is fair to say he is now a convert to the idea. It gave me much to think about in terms of what we might do at Aberdeen.

The final session of the day was about pro bono over a legal lifetime, or the “cradle to grave” approach. Representatives from the Scottish Young Lawyers Assoction, LawWorks Scotland, the Free Legal Services Unit at the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland (in the form of the new President, Bruce Beveridge) all explained why pro bono matters and what students should do in their careers if they wish to continue as torch-bearers. I made a cameo on behalf of the Higher Education Academy, as a late substitute for its representative who unfortunately could not make it, to explain that the HEA champions excellence in learning and teaching in higher education and why championing law clinics and Street Law can be a part of that. If after reading this blog you agree, it will have been worth the writing.

The Scottish University Law Clinic Network is still young, but there is a great optimism about what it can do and (without a hint of exaggeration) I am very excited to be involved in it. It might be exaggerating to say I am looking forward to next year’s conference already, but I am delighted to see the network developing and that so many other institutions (like the universities of Abertay, Glasgow and Robert Gordon University) were in attendance to see what they can learn and bring to the pro bono party. You are all invited and it is free to attend. Bring a bottle of enthusiasm and a smorgasbord of legal knowledge and you will be made more than welcome at it.

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About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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2 Responses to Scottish University Law Clinic Network 2013

  1. Pingback: Scottish University Law Clinic Network 2014 | basedrones

  2. Pingback: A visit to Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic | basedrones

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