Law of the streets

December 21, 2000

Both the homeless and legal students are set to benefit over Christmas from a free advice initiative. Claire Sanders reports.

When it was first suggested that students from the College of Law run advice sessions for the homeless, Claire Blezzard was a little concerned.

Blezzard is a services manager for Crisis, a charity for the homeless. She oversees the services such as medical care provided to the "guests" who come for shelter to London Open Christmas, the hostels run by Crisis from December 23-30. "I am concerned to ensure that students have a rapport with the guests. It is one thing to have a lot of legal knowledge, it is another to be able to communicate that," she says. "There is a massive social divide."

The advice sessions, a street law programme organised by the College of Law, are part of an ambitious pro bono initiative that the college, the largest provider of legal education in the country, hopes will have an impact on legal education nationally.

To ensure that students are equipped to offer advice over Christmas, the college has worked with Crisis and run a pilot at a centre operated by Equinox, a charity that works with drug users and alcoholics. In these sessions, students have been able to go away to research queries and return with the results.

Matthew Yates is one of the law students who participated. Like other students offering advice, he does not have a law degree and is studying for a diploma in law or for a common professional examination, before he goes on to take his legal practice course.

He says: "We began by giving short presentations on issues such as housing and benefit rights and then we went to a question-and-answer session." About 20 guests attended the session. "It was a bit awkward at first, but as the questions and answers got going, the atmosphere warmed up. I enjoyed it, and I will be signing up to offer advice over Christmas."

Richard Grimes, the director of pro bono services and clinical education at the college, also attended the session. "When we first started talking about rights, one of the guests just said simply, 'We don't have any.' But he joined in the discussion fully and at the end of the session he said he felt better informed and less sceptical," Grimes says.

Blezzard adds: "We have an information desk that is staffed by experienced volunteers. These will refer guests to the students, who will be working alongside experienced lawyers."

Alex McBride, a diploma student, went to Wormwood Scrubs with other students to offer advice to prisoners. "When a question was particularly complex, we went away and researched it and came back with a small report," he says.

On the same visit was Julie Quigley, another diploma student. She says: "I was asked why are there so many Jamaicans in prison and Ihad to go away and research that, which raised a lot of issues."

Stephen Levett, a supervisor at the college, says: "This is a wonderful way to teach students. For those who are new to law, there is a danger that the approach might be very academic. Under this scheme, students have to go in there and do it. It is a totally different way of learning and teaching from just listening to someone explain the issues. Also, tutors are present at all times. We do not just let students loose on people."

"The Dearing inquiry said that the teaching of skills should be a more integral part of education," Grimes says. "As students pay so much for their education, they are demanding to come out with the right skills."

The benefit of pro bono work extends beyond its immediate value to students and those they help to the society as a whole. "It makes good business sense, but it also reflects the fact that lawyers have an obligation to ensure that everyone has access to legal services."

As well as street law, the college's pro bono work includes advice clinics. In these, students on the legal practice and Bar vocational courses represent real clients. Students offering advice through the street law programme can refer clients with ongoing problems to the clinics. The college, which is already running advice centres in London and Chester, aims to have clinics at all its branches by 2001. It also plans an online advice clinic, based at its new branch in Birmingham. In the long term, it would like to see the introduction of assessed pro bono modules across the legal curriculum and more research into its effectiveness. College research has indicated that students who have done pro bono work do better in exams.

"It costs about Pounds 35,000 to run a clinic," Grimes says, "so there is a limit to what a private institution like ours can do. We are looking for partnerships to take pro bono work forward."

Peta Sweet, a consultant to the college on pro bono work and founding director of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group, says: "It is not just a way of giving students better skills, but also an important way for lawyers to fight accusations of elitism and to fulfil social obligations."

She says that in the United States and South Africa, pro bono work has long been established. "Street law, for example, has played an important part in the move towards democratisation (in South Africa)."

The UK Centre for Legal Education at Warwick University and the Clinical Legal Education Organisation will host a conference titled "Active Learning in Law School - The Community Dimension" on January 4.

SUPPORT FOR PRO BONO WORK

Lord Bingham of Cornhill , former lord chief justice, says: "Increasingly, lawyers are coming to recognise a duty not only to paying clients but also to the wider community in which they live.

"The College of Law's new scheme will greatly accelerate and strengthen this change of attitude, bringing home to young lawyers on the brink of their careers this important and challenging responsibility."

David Lock , MP, parliamentary secretary, lord chancellor's department, says: "I applaud the College of Law's plan to foster a commitment to pro bono work.

"It remains one of the lord chancellor's key objectives to improve the availability of affordable and good quality legal services. Pro bono work continues to make a very valuable contribution to the achievement."

Bob Nightingale , chair of the Law Centres Federation, says: "As we begin to develop a seamless pro bono legal service to support core advice agencies, the inclusion of law students will be an essential element."

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