Having a luvvie time on the mean streets of Manchester

September 1, 2006

Unlike its portrayal on TV, volunteering at a law centre is not all murder and corporate corruption but good training for tomorrow's legal eagles, says Dinah Crystal

The highlight of my summer has been assisting the BBC with a new eight-part drama series set in Manchester that mirrors some of the work we do at Manchester University's School of Law Legal Advice Centre. The Innocence Project , which airs in autumn, is about a corporate law professor (played by Lloyd Owen of Monarch of the Glen fame) who gets together a group of bright law students to research possible grounds of appeal in a variety of miscarriage of justice cases, pro bono .

Of course, for dramatic effect the stories will be about high-profile matters such as murder and rape, as well as Erin Brockovich-style battles against corrupt corporate giants. At our law advice centre on campus, which I set up seven years ago and that has 300 student volunteers helping some 400 clients a year, we deal with matters such as landlord and tenant disputes, divorce, probate, consumer and employment cases. Next semester, we hope to represent clients at certain tribunals.

We have also had our share of complex cases: for example a prison liaison officer at HM Strangeways Prison contacted us to take up a miscarriage of justice case that may lead to the Court of Appeal for a man convicted of attempted murder.

We helped a group of parents protesting about the closure of a school to take the local authority to the High Court, as well as obtaining compensation for a local bowling club that was to be closed down by a property developer.

The BBC drama, written by Cambridge law graduate Oliver Brown, has stuck close to reality in terms of the students depicted and the fictional East Manchester office basement they work out of (we are luckier at our law school to have a more sophisticated office set-up).

When I visited the set with one of my students, he said it was so real that he could have sat down and started working. Their attention to detail has been amazing. The actors and directors were far from luvvies. They were really excited to realise that a law school actually had one of these clinics.

I've been interviewed for the website that has been set up as a resource for viewers who wish to know more about pro bono work. My colleague - Neil Allen, a barrister - and I have also been interviewed for the Radio Times , as have some of the students.

Our cases come from many different sources, including referrals from local Citizens Advice Bureaux. We are, for example, working with the Chinese Women's Centre in Manchester advising on a variety of legal matters, using the language skills of our Chinese students.

It's fantastic for students to be studying an area of law one minute, and putting their knowledge into practice the next. It improves their legal understanding and research has shown that their academic grades can improve.

Pro bono legal work is an accepted part of the practitioner's life - from City corporate lawyer to the sole practitioner on the High Street. So it is wonderful to see that pro bono work, which is such an important part of so many undergraduate law schools, is being dramatised on television. I'm sure it will inspire more young people to do pro bono work, not only as an undergraduate but throughout their career as a lawyer.

Dinah Crystal is director of external relations and clinical education, School of Law, Manchester University. Any law school wishing to take up pro bono work should contact Dinah Crystal or LawWorks: enquiries@lawworks.org.uk

Next week: Bhikhu Parekh

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