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ABS-licensed universities could plug the legal aid gap

The licensing of law schools as ABSs is an extension of the work experience and pro bono opportunities offered to students, argues Jackie Panter

12 May 2015

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Today's legal education landscape encompasses new and varied routes into the profession for students, whether that entails a traditional university path with study on undergraduate and postgraduate courses or work-based learning within law firms from the age of 18. The regulators have not prescribed huge amounts of detail about the requirements for the work-based element of training prior to licence. However, law schools have provided these opportunities to students, recognising their value for the experience and development of future practitioners. So, is the licensing of law schools as alternative business structures (ABSs) a huge change in the delivery of legal education?

Work-based learning

ABS status carries on the natural progression of law schools offering work experience opportunities alongside legal education. Being licensed by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) as an ABS to deliver legal services can give students the opportunity to gain invaluable experiences and skills for life as practitioners with the support of their law school.

However, many law schools have always facilitated work experience and pro bono opportunities for their students. Doing so through an ABS is an extension of this. There are many different ways of providing these opportunities and it does not necessarily need to be within an ABS-licensed entity.

Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) works in collaboration with 12 pro bono partners, such as Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau, and firms to provide commercial advice within our business incubator unit, Innospace, helping nascent companies avoid the myriad of legal pitfalls faced by start-up firms. The Court of Appeal praised the work of the Cardiff Law School Innocent Project and Pro Bono Unit when it overturned the murder conviction of Dwaine George in December 2014. The University of Northumbria's law school has an award-winning scheme in which practical experience is embedded within academic studies.

With consultations on the assessment of competence to be licensed as a solicitor ongoing as part of the SRA's 'Training for Tomorrow' programme, the work-based element of training, currently the training contract, could change. Already, changes in the regulations allow for 'qualification by equivalent means', bypassing the requirement to complete
a training contract.

The SRA may allow different ways of carrying out that work-based learning in order to demonstrate prescribed skills and behaviours before being licensed as a solicitor, and legal work experience gained at university may offer a means of doing so. Law schools will want to, and many already do, offer increasing opportunities to aspiring solicitors to gain experience or training, either to complement their academic studies or as an embedded part of their course.

What would be new and perhaps controversial would be
if a university-based entity, receiving income through student fees, also charged clients for advice and assistance provided by those students. But we do not yet know how an ABS within a university would operate.

Free legal aid

As an aside, there has been a rise in the number of people seeking pro bono advice because of the cuts to legal aid. With further cuts to legal aid likely, and an increased number of people seeking pro bono advice, we could see a greater demand for alternative sources of legal advice and assistance.

Unintended or otherwise, these networks of free legal help could be a way of plugging the gap in what is now a high-profile and much-debated issue of access to justice. I believe this would be wrong and would prefer to see legal advice and assistance fulfilled by legal aid. However, students undertaking pro bono work through law schools and/or ABS-licensed centres may end up inadvertently propping up the current hole in legal assistance.

Preparing students for work has always been central to our mission of producing practice-ready legal professionals at MMU. The legal education landscape is evolving to provide new avenues for students to apply and develop their skills. One thing that remains constant is the need to ensure students - whether they are graduates, undergraduates, trainees, or apprentices - are well versed in the hands-on skills needed to be a legal professional. Pro bono work has always been vital to the nurturing and training of students and will remain so - ABS status can be part of a long, proud tradition of providing students with real-life training. SJ

Jackie Panter is associate head of Manchester Law School at Manchester Metropolitan University

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