Access to justice: the next generation
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Marc Bloomfield
Description: Students at a library (Mathis PR Reding_Pexels)
James Sandbach reports on how law schools are contributing to the future of access to justice.
Legal Action readers rightly worry about the challenging question of how we inspire and provide stepping-stone opportunities for the next generation of social welfare lawyers. This goes to the heart of whether our system of access to justice for all, while currently deeply flawed, is even sustainable. Do our legal professions care sufficiently enough to convert worthy (if wordy) commitments to social mobility, diversity, inclusion – and concerns for access to justice and the rule of law – into a reality for current and future trainees and practitioners? Student debt, high training costs, low entrant salaries in the legal aid sector and decreasing fees have all been identified as significant barriers and issues in recent Young Legal Aid Lawyers research.1See Young Legal Aid Lawyers: social mobility in a time of austerity, March 2018. As we face further reforms this year to legal education and training, with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), how can a core social justice mission be made more integral to pathways into the profession?
There is cause for cautious optimism. The Legal Education Foundation’s (TLEF’s) Justice First Fellowship scheme, for example, has been groundbreaking, with over 80 fellows now placed in social welfare settings. Often less noticed, though, is just how committed law schools have become to offering students a rounded and practical educational and skills development experience, with social justice and the delivery of legal support to vulnerable communities at its heart. From BPP University running its own training contracts at its Legal Advice Clinic focused on housing and employment cases, to Swansea University’s Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law’s ever-expanding list of clinics and outreach projects, to the University of Manchester’s Justice Hub, the portfolio of law schools’ social welfare law work is varied and growing.
Other innovative examples include the University of Plymouth’s Refugee Family Reunion Project in partnership with the Red Cross, Nottingham Law School establishing its Legal Advice Centre as a regulated alternative business structure, and University College London being awarded a legal aid contract for its Integrated Legal Advice Clinic in East London.
What are law schools and students doing and saying?
LawWorks has been working with law schools for over 20 years to support and encourage pro bono and clinical legal education, moving away from classic ‘black letter law’ classroom learning towards active engagement in social justice, from running free legal advice centres to extensive public legal education (PLE) outreach projects in the community. In contrast to the USA, clinical legal education was quite slow to take off in the UK. The Universities of Kent and Warwick were early pioneers, but only four law school clinics were operating in the 1980s; then, in the 1990s, the College of Law committed to establishing a network of free legal advice clinics.
As well as providing a range of resources and support to law school clinics, including an online student induction package, LawWorks has been periodically monitoring pro bono activity in law schools. Our first report in 2000 showed only around 40 per cent of respondent law schools reported running clinics, but subsequent reports showed that this increased to over 90 per cent of law schools saying they run clinics and other pro bono and volunteering projects, PLE programmes and student placements.
So, the scale of law school clinic activity has grown significantly over the past two decades, and in December last year we published our latest report jointly with the Clinical Legal Education Organisation (CLEO). The Law school pro bono and clinic report 2020 (16 December 2020) contains the findings of two online surveys carried out by LawWorks into clinic activity and trends, one for law schools and one for law students. The aim was to do a ‘deep dive’ and provide a comprehensive update on developments in student pro bono and the wider legal landscape for law schools’ clinical programmes since our last report in 2014. Since the 2014 report, we have seen outcomes of the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), significant outcomes from the Legal Education and Training Review, and the growth of ‘LegalTech’ and digital tools that are revolutionising the ways that students learn and legal services are delivered. Most recently, of course, there has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, coming in the second semester of the last academic year and running into the current one.
Some key findings from our report were that:
Over 3,000 students took part in pro bono programmes over the 2019/20 academic year. We are confident that the number of students doing pro bono work is significantly more than captured by the survey.
Of the 78 law schools that responded to the survey, all but one offered pro bono opportunities and 90 per cent of respondents said the range of their pro bono work had increased.
Seventy-five per cent of respondent law schools said that their pro bono offer included generalist advice and/or generalist advice with casework; 68 per cent said that they ran Streetlaw/PLE projects.
Employment (79 per cent), family (70 per cent) and housing (67 per cent) were the main areas of law covered by law school clinics.
Partnership was much in evidence, with 72 per cent of respondent law schools saying they worked with private practice, 63 per cent with local Citizens Advice and 45 per cent with Law Centres.
Some findings bear closer consideration. First, on the range of activities in which law schools engage and the opportunities that they provide, over 60 per cent of respondents said they offered Streetlaw and external placements, 54 per cent said they offered generalist advice, 36 per cent said specialist advice, 23 per cent said court and tribunal representation and a third said ‘innocence’/miscarriage of justice projects. Over 80 per cent of respondent law schools said that students at their clinics carried out interviewing, legal research, drafting advice to clients and signposting to other agencies. Form-filling was reported at 58 per cent and around 40 per cent of respondents said that students at their clinics also undertook correspondence with other parties, provided face-to-face advice and drafted court documents. Law schools said that 22 per cent of students at their clinics undertook representation in courts and tribunals, from welfare rights to special educational needs and small claims. Employment, family, housing and consumer law were the main areas covered by law school clinics.
Much of this work is undertaken though partnerships with the wider legal and advice sector. Over 70 per cent of respondent law schools said they partnered with private practice (for example, working with firms and with local law societies and networks), over 60 per cent said they worked with Citizens Advice and 45 per cent said they worked with Law Centres. So, law school clinics operate as part of the wider ecosystem, including in relation to training and supervision. We asked law schools what training and induction was provided for students in clinics. Eighty-six per cent of respondents said sessions were provided by members of the law school’s staff, 57 per cent said they were provided by legal practitioners external to the law school and 57 per cent said they were provided by other external personnel (eg, from a Law Centre, local government or a partner organisation).
We then asked them whether and how the work carried out in the clinics was supervised. All who responded said that the work was overseen by professionals: 81 per cent said work was supervised by qualified solicitors and 15 per cent said qualified barristers. In the same question, we asked whether supervisors were members of the law school’s academic staff, the law school’s non-academic staff, legal practitioners external to the law school and/or other external personnel (eg, Law Centre or other partner agency employees). Over 70 per cent said work was supervised by members of the law school's academic staff, while 45 per cent also said work was supervised by legal practitioners external to the law school. Overall, answers suggest that many had mixed models tailored to the needs of different clinics and partnerships.
Increasingly, students’ work in clinics also forms part of their assessments and learning outcomes, with over half of respondent law schools reporting that clinic work was assessed. Asked how law schools assessed performance, 86 per cent of respondents said by ‘academic credit for a module’ while 27 per cent said as part of a ‘reflective portfolio’ and 27 per cent said through a certificate of participation. We also found that 60 per cent of students who responded to our survey said they should be getting academic credits for undertaking pro bono work. However, it would be misleading to conclude that this is all about CVs and demonstrating employability, credits and skills. While 90 per cent of respondent law schools did rank educational value and employability as very important, 71 per cent also ranked social justice the same way. And when we asked in our survey of students ‘Why do you do pro bono volunteering’, 88 per cent said ‘helping others’.
Adapting for the future
The student survey results demonstrated real enthusiasm for clinics and 79 per cent of respondents said they would like to see their law schools do some or more pro bono clinic work. The SQE, despite its apparent drawbacks as an academic grounding and the notable absence of social welfare law from the curricula, may yet facilitate those opportunities. Under the new route, students will be required to complete a minimum of two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE) before they can qualify as a solicitor. The difference from the current training contract model is that this can be completed at any point during the qualification process and the type of work that qualifies as QWE can include placements while studying for a degree and time spent as a paralegal or working in a law clinic, as well as working for a private practice law firm (the QWE may be completed with up to four different legal practice organisations). This opens up the potential opportunity for law schools to provide a QWE component for working in clinics. Nearly half of the law schools responding to our survey said that they were adapting their clinic programmes in light of the SQE.
In response to the pandemic, law schools have adapted to provide remote services, but many were well placed to do this having already embraced a greater role for tech in education and training. Law schools’ responses are explored in more detail in our report, including first-hand accounts of how they have been adapting and responding not just to the post-LASPO landscape, but also to the triple challenges of SQE, technology and COVID-19. While law schools alone cannot provide for a more sustainable market for career development in the social welfare law sector – and nor should pro bono activity be seen as a replacement for a properly funded legal aid system – the pathways, partnerships, skills and real experience of providing services that they can offer all demonstrate a foundation on which we can build.

About the author(s)

Description: James Sandbach - author
James Sandbach is director of policy and external affairs at LawWorks. He was campaigns and research manager for the Low Commission on the Future of...