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Looking to the future of clinical legal education

Looking to the future of clinical legal education


University advice clinics can stimulate new opportunities for law graduates and help increase access to justice, write Vicky Kemp and Graham Smith

In 2016, as part of a programme to review and reform its Legal Advice Centre, the School of Law at the University of Manchester commissioned a research study to investigate different models for clinical legal education in the UK and US.

Around 70 per cent of university law schools currently undertake pro bono work and they are increasingly adopting clinical methods by setting up legal advice clinics which give their students the opportunity to provide legal advice under the supervision of either in-house practising academic clinicians or pro-bono lawyers.

The proposed legal education reforms, and introduction of the solicitors qualifying exam, has the potential for law students to become more involved in clinical work, particularly if universities are responsible for managing work-based placements with legal practitioners.

Published online in October 2016, Vicky Kemp, Tine Munk, and Suzanne Gower’s ‘Clinical Legal Education and Experiential Learning: Looking to the Future’ broke new ground in setting out the rapidly developing terrain in the UK.

Following on from the research report, the University of Manchester hosted a seminar, in association with the organisation which represents clinicians (CLEO) and the recently launched Greater Manchester Law Centre (SJ 161/4), on 24 January 2017. Leading clinicians, legal practitioners, the SRA, and senior academics attended to discuss the future of CLE.

There are a number of universities where CLE is mainstreamed into the law curriculum and, in light of the proposed legal education reforms, many more are proposing to do so. Through such an expansion of clinical work, access to justice may be improved.

With teaching the priority in higher education, however, it is evident that law schools are unable to fill the gap in legal service provision following the devastating impact of cuts in public funding. Nevertheless, over the years, law students have assisted thousands of people with their legal problems.

Working in collaboration with others, clinics have an important contribution to make within the ecosystem of legal advice providers. In addition, clinical work and experiential learning provides students with a structured opportunity for reflection, which provides them with life-long skills including the importance of integrating reflection into their practice once qualified.

A major issue for those delivering access to justice is to provide a quality service. The Legal Services Consumer Panel found that consumers wrongly assume that legal services are risk-free and recommends that policy makers find new ways of engaging with consumers so they take a more active role in demanding quality standards that are appropriate for their needs and instruct lawyers that are aware of possible risks. The panel also requires that legal advisers are properly trained and deliver competent legal advice.

The University of Manchester’s Legal Advice Clinic has addressed this issue by requesting all clients complete a satisfaction survey. A solicitor from private practice has also introduced new procedures based on a thorough review of case files. In addition, and as recommended in the Kemp, Munk, and Gower report, a survey is to be undertaken of clients asking how they received the advice, whether it was understood, what action was taken in resolving their problems, and whether this was effective. The survey could also usefully ask the same questions of other legal service providers.

In the ‘Looking to the Future’ report, a number of important issues raised by clinicians need to be resolved. The uncertainty associated with the proposed legal education reforms, for example, make it extremely difficult to plan the curriculum for a three or four-year law degree, particularly as this could change dramatically within that timescale. Clinical work also tends to require more resources than traditional approaches to teaching law.

There has recently been a coalescing of a number of factors which has led to clinical work becoming more highly valued. These include the cost of legal education, which leaves many law graduates with high debts after qualifying. Following the economic crisis there are also fewer opportunities: fewer training contracts and, following cut-backs in public spending, a dramatic reduction in the number of opportunities available for those wanting to practise in social welfare, mental health, and family law.

This is why the University of Manchester wants to embrace the legal education reforms and provide a bridge between the ‘learning and doing’ of law by increasing the capacity for students to engage in clinical work. This will help students to be more competitive when seeking training contracts and employment opportunities.

By working with lawyers and other organisations, the university’s clinical work will help to stimulate new opportunities for law students and graduates and thereby help to increase access to justice.

Vicky Kemp is a principal research fellow at the University of Nottingham and Graham Smith is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Manchester