Inspirational founder's legal clinic sets bar for success

Award recognises a role model who enables legal students to help others. Melanie Newman writes

May 22, 2008

Donald Nicolson has been recognised as a "life changer".

The founder and director of the University of Strathclyde Law Clinic was named last week as the winner of the University and College Union's annual "life-changer" award, which celebrates the contribution lecturers make to "inspire others through their work or study".

Professor Nicolson graduated from the University of Cape Town, where he worked in a law clinic offering free legal advice in the townships. He came to the UK in 1983 to study for a PhD at the University of Cambridge. "I had to leave South Africa because of military service. I was granted asylum as a draft dodger," he told Times Higher Education.

After Cambridge, he headed to the University of Reading, where he tried to set up a law clinic. "The department defeated it," he said. "They were too scared about the possible implications."

He left for the University of Bristol, where he faced the same problem. "One colleague eventually told people to shut up and let me do it." He stayed for eight years but never felt that he fitted in. "It wasn't my type of place. They didn't value the law clinic; it wasn't given any resources ... But the students were very supportive."

After Strathclyde headhunted Professor Nicolson, the place became a "home from home". "I was given a year to settle in, then the person who recruited me asked: 'Where's my law clinic?'"

Since its launch in October 2003, the clinic has taken on more than 80 cases. It provides free legal assistance to people in Glasgow and the surrounding areas. It does not take criminal or custody cases; most of its caseload relates to consumer, housing and employment issues. "We rarely lose cases. There is a lot of complacency among the lawyers on the other side."

Memorable successes include a custody battle over a dog, a row over an ill-fitting bridal gown (which was altered in time for the wedding) and support for an elderly couple who had been pursued for £1,000 by their council for ten years.

The Strathclyde clinic is far bigger than similar ones elsewhere in the UK. Volunteer work is not tied to courses or assessment so supervision is "hands-off". "They learn enormous amounts," Professor Nicolson said. "But that's not the aim. The aim is to help people."


Sue Starkings was nominated for her work encouraging people in London boroughs with some of the UK's lowest university participation rates to consider higher education.

As head of the skills unit at London South Bank University's learning support and development department, she set up a six-week summer programme to cater for students from non-traditional backgrounds.

Dr Starkings grew up on a London estate and left school at 15. She said: "It is a considerable honour to have been nominated for this award, especially as it was my colleagues who put me forward ... I am continually delighted by the difference that we all make to so many people's lives."

Brian Spittles, a retired lecturer from Dartmouth, was nominated by a former student he had taught at Ruskin College, Oxford.

The student, John Cunningham, was a 34-year-old who had just left mining when he first encountered Dr Spittles at Ruskin in 1983. Now Mr Cunningham is a senior lecturer in film studies at Sheffield Hallam University who is awaiting the publication of his second book.

Mr Cunningham said: "Brian was very able to bring out the best in me ... His patient, detailed, indeed painstaking, approach to every aspect of the educational process benefited me enormously."

James Derounian, principal lecturer in community development and local governance, was singled out for his work in both the local and university communities.

His field trips give students the opportunity to get involved in, and participate in, local issues; students say this allows them to put the theory of their subjects into practice and helps prepare them for the real world. A group of current and former students nominated him for the award.

Patrick Smith, professor of learning and teaching at Bucks New University, was nominated for encouraging non-traditional students to consider, and complete, higher education.

He was nominated by Roger Dalrymple, principal lecturer in education at the university. Dr Dalrymple said: "Working as he does at an institution that promotes widened participation and a second chance at higher education, Patrick's commitment to education as a transformative endeavour is truly exceptional."

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