Student law clinics – the way of the future? by John Bolch

Family Law|January 21st 2014

I was interested to read recently that the University of Huddersfield has opened a Legal Advice Clinic in a shopping centre in the heart of Huddersfield.

The Clinic is run by law students at the university, and offers advice in connection with civil law and contract disputes, personal injury, wills, employment issues and family law.

The rationale behind such student law clinics is twofold: to provide a source of legal advice to the ever-increasing numbers who are not able to get it elsewhere, particular given recent legal aid cutbacks; and to enable the students to gain hands-on experience of dealing with real-world legal issues.

In the case of the Huddersfield clinic, advice is available to any member of the public, provided that they can’t afford to pay for advice and aren’t eligible for legal aid.

Getting advice from unqualified students may seem a dangerous idea, but before any advice is given, it is carefully scrutinised by law lecturers.

There is nothing new about law student advice clinics. I was myself involved with the Kent Law Clinic, run by the University of Kent Law School, and took its first surgery at Medway, way back in 2006.

In that instance the clinic would take place one evening a week at a local venue such as a library, with a volunteer local lawyer helped by two or three students. The lawyer would take instructions and give basic advice, with the students taking notes. If the matter was suitable, the students would subsequently provide advice and assistance to the ‘client’, supervised by law lecturers.

I believe that many other law schools operate a similar model. However, what makes the Huddersfield clinic unique is that it has a permanent town-centre home, operating from Monday to Friday. Will this be the way of the future, with such clinics filling the role once taken by high street legal aid lawyers?

There certainly seems to be a demand. The Huddersfield clinic began a trial last October, and was fully booked up until Christmas. The trial has now ended, and the clinic has been officially opened.

There will, of course, be limitations on what the students can do. Obviously, they can’t represent clients in court; they may lack the necessary expertise to deal with more complex cases; there will be a limit to the amount of work they can take on and, presumably, they will only be available in term time.

Notwithstanding all that, student law clinics must be good for the students, and any help they can give to the public is very welcome. It’s just a shame that there are such gaps in our legal aid scheme that so much help is now needed.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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  1. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Dear John
    My son Ben was heavily involved with the student legal advice group operated at the University of Leeds when he was an under grad. He graduated with a first class honours degree in law but I’m sure he would agree that the academic law degree for which he was studying hardly equipped him to advise in the same way as an experienced solicitor would.
    Ben followed in his parents footsteps, when Grahame and I were first qualified we used to give free legal advice at the CAB in Leeds, joining my late mother who was a volunteer adviser and my sister a JP.
    With the best will in the world, nothing can replace the experience and expertise of qualified lawyers who have worked for years to learn the law and crucially then apply it. Even when qualified, I was the first to admit I didn’t feel ready for the brave new world and looking back, I really wasn’t but I did have 5.5 years training under my belt.
    It is sad beyond measure that people of goodwill, young teenagers cutting their teeth are left to provide some type of desperately required legal advise. That’s all they can do assuming they get it right. But they can’t run a case.

  2. Tristan says:

    This is simply applying the McKenzie Friend principle. You don’t always need to be a trained fireman to put out a fire.
    Hopefully other services of this kind will spring up to help plug the gap following the demise of legal aid.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Tristan
      To fill the gap? Are you for real? Would you be so enthusiastic letting an under grad dental student loose on your teeth?

  3. Steve says:

    Well i let a premier law firm run my case and they were hopeless in the final analysis!

  4. Tristan says:

    Hello Marilyn,
    If it were a mere matter of some dental hygiene and a polish, I probably would.
    More on topic, some Mckenzie Friends I’ve come across can’t even write or spell properly let alone know their law adequately. Their court experience and feel for a case somehow enables them to wing their way through a case though their clients probably don’t know just how useless they are. I’m not suggesting that a free advice service staffed by law students is an entirely adequate replacement for a half-decent solicitor but it’s a helping hand and maybe that’s all a determined litigant needs before going to court and asking for access to his child.

    The courts themselves ought to be bending over backwards in their efforts to keep parents in proper relationships with their children and it doesn’t take rocket science to work out how to achieve that. The problem is the meanness of judges in not awarding non-resident fathers a decent enough slug of time with their children so they can get on with the job of raising them throughout childhood. A s.8 Children Act order for access ought to take no time at all, to either be awarded or enforced but the law at present is totally inadequate in that regard irrespective of whether you are represented by the Queen’s solicitor or an earthworm. That is the basic problem, not the availability or otherwise of legal aid. The tinkering around they’ve done with the Children Act and the failed strategy of shoving litigants into mediation only go to show just how bad a fist Norgrove and the government have made of it. There is no substitute for a proper presumption
    in law for shared parenting after separation. The mealy-mouthed version they’ve come up, laced with its caveats, will only serve to cause yet more friction along with endless needs for solicitors and free legal aid to argue out the problems. I keep saying this but the average contact case could be and ought to be, resolved in a Surestart centre with not a solicitor in sight.

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