From the ashes: the rise of the Law Clinic education – National Volunteers Week Law Clinic series

A solicitor for almost four decades, the Law Clinic’s Director, John Peake, set up his own firm in 2002. South West Law undertook legal aid work with cases that concentrated on social welfare law. The introduction of the Legal Aid and Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders act (LAPSO) in 2013 saw the availability of publicly funded legal aid work for social welfare removed and the firm’s work massively reduced. In an interview in our latest Law Clinic Annual Review, John talks about how this experience laid the foundations for the pro bono work students now manage in the Law Clinic – and how, whilst there are challenges ahead, the future is bright for law clinics and the students that work in them.

John Peake

How did the introduction of LAPSO lay the foundations for Law Clinic work?

The government reductions in funding meant the availability of legal aid was drastically slashed. That meant that several areas of work that legal aid did cover were no longer covered. There was no legal aid for most family cases, no legal aid for most immigration cases and no legal aid for welfare benefit cases. This significantly impacted the number of people who needed advice and support but could not access solicitors which, in turn, led to a high demand for pro bono help from Law Clinics.

What does that demand look like in terms of the growth of the Law Clinic?

We now have in the region of 230 students who are involved in the Law Clinic ranging from first year law students through to master’s students. We deal with something in the order of 300-400 cases in any one year and we cover an entire range of legal issues from housing, benefits appeals, contract disputes and employment cases.

The people who contact the Law Clinic tend to contact us as a last resort. Most people have already tried to get help from Citizen’s Advice, from a law centre or from a solicitor but find either they cannot help or that they cannot afford to carry on using them. At that point they contact us.

One of the great things about the Law Clinic is that we have a range of clients and it is accessible in the widest sense. We have people who have very little money. We have people who have a relatively moderate amount of money but cannot afford legal bills. And we get quite a lot of people who would not go to a solicitor in any event because they’re intimidated by going to the flashy offices of the big commercial firms.

What other work is the Law Clinic involved in?

We are also involved in several outreach projects in the community with organisations such as Bristol Drugs Project, MIND and a domestic violence charity. This means we have clients with a whole range of problems, both legal and non-legal.

In terms of student development, outreach projects are an incredibly important part of our work. They help develop a deeper understanding of societal issues and the real impact such issues have on people’s lives. Before students meet clients in our outreach projects, we will work with our partner organisations to provide training so students understand the issues they may be facing and how to respond appropriately.

We also carry out work in the Wellspring Settlement, an area of Bristol which is also one of the most deprived in the country. Most clients that we see here are members from the Somali community. This means students conduct cases for people for whom English is not their first language which raises difficulties but also helps student further develop their communication and problem-solving skills.

How is the Law Clinic moving forward?

The Law Clinic is always moving forward. In fact, it is essential it does so. The opportunity to work in a law clinic is going to be increasingly important to prospective students and they will be looking to gain that experience. It is a demand that is met by the demand for law clinic services and pro bono advice from the public.

previous law clinic students

In recent years, there has been a three-fold increase in the establishment of law clinics in UK universities. When I started at the Law Clinic there were around 30 universities in the country that had law clinics. Now there are in excess of 90. We are often asked for input in relation to other clinics and situations that other students or directors might have. People come to us for advice and guidance, and that indicates how well the clinic is regarded nationally.

Nowadays students do not just want the UK experience. They also want to gain an international perspective. In recent years, we have been developing the Law Clinic by partnering with law clinics around the world. We have established links with universities in India, France and Germany and are currently planning to run sessions with universities in China. As we move forward, we are committed to further growing our international network of partner universities.

Equally important, though, is our ongoing commitment to nurturing and expanding our links within the community and with community organisations. Over the next few years, we will be particularly looking at how we can develop our immigration work because there is a clear need there.

What is the biggest challenge facing the future of the Law Clinic?

The biggest change to the legal sector will be whether law clinics should be regulated by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA). Now they’re not, but within two to five years there could be a move towards regulation as the demand increases to ensure the standards of law clinics are maintained and kept high.

Making sure that you have the appropriate levels of supervision in place is essential for the ongoing quality of the service. And achieving that will pave the way for a successful outcome if there was a move to regulation. The key to running a law clinic and maximising its effectiveness both for students and members of the public is the quality of the supervision. That means that you need to have people in place who are experienced, who know what they are doing and who can communicate. And that is what we offer.

At the end of the day, being a supervisor is really a teaching role. It is a matter of making sure that a student understands what is involved and to address any concerns and mistakes in a sympathetic way so that students learn from them rather than feel they are being punished for them. It is a question of there being enough resources to make sure that the degree of supervision that is required is actually in place.

How does the Clinical Legal Studies Module feed into your supervision in the Law Clinic?

The Clinical Legal Studies module is available to all third years. Taking the module means compulsory membership of the Law Clinic. I devised and set up the module to ensure quality of service was embedded into the Law Clinic from day one. The module is designed to get students to think about their place within the law and why they react to a particular situation the way they do.

“We are trying to develop students who want to become people who will shape the future, who want to become policy makers, who want to be influencing decisions, but to do that they have to understand the setting that they’re actually in and clinical legal studies provides them with that.”

How a student reacts with a client is really important because it can influence the way that the advisor client relationship actually progresses. We get students to think about their role and to approach things in a non-judgmental way because, quite often, our clients are very vulnerable.

We try and get students to think about how to approach particular situations. If, for example, a client comes in and they’re wet, they’re grubby and they’re smelly – the natural reaction is to take a step back and recoil slightly. But, as soon as you do that, the client will perceive that to be a judgement and an adverse criticism.

But once a student talks to that client, they might find out that they lost their job a couple of months ago, that they have not been able to afford their rent so they are now homeless, they are having to sleep either on a park bench or in somebody’s car and then everything else fits into place. Through that, students develop a much better understanding of clients’ problems and how to go about addressing them.

How does the Law Clinic support students’ employability?

The Law Clinic attracts several types of students because students have different objectives. One of the things that we try not to discourage, because we recognise that it is a reality, is that students will want to work in the Law Clinic because they believe it looks good on their CV. And to be honest, it does. You talk to partners at firms, and they say law clinic experience is invaluable, setting students apart from those students who have not been involved in a law clinic.

So, you have those students who see the Law Clinic as very much a badge to go on their CV and we also have students who join the Law Clinic because they want to help people, because they appreciate the social justice function of the Law Clinic. But there is a tension between the two.

“If we have somebody who comes in with the motive to get the experience because it looks good on their CV, but at the end of their time with us they actually understand why the Law Clinic is so important and the role of the Law Clinic within the local community and society, then I think we have achieved something.”

One of the really rewarding things about my role is to see a student who comes into the Law Clinic and you talk to them, and they say the most terrifying they have ever done at university was to sit down in front of a client for the first time.

To see how that student develops from being somebody who is really quite scared of the situation they find themselves in – with another human being relying on them, depending on them – to see how they become someone who is confident, who is able to put clients at ease, who is able to draw out the information they need and then respond in appropriate ways, that is really what our job as supervisors is all about.

It is the development of those skills that makes our students stand out when they are applying for jobs and that puts them on a path for a successful, meaningful career wherever that might be.

Further information

Find out more about the work of the University of Bristol Law Clinic and the pro bono activities our students and alumni get involved in by reading our National Volunteering Week 2022 blog series.

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