Human Rights in Ireland is delighted to welcome this guest post from Larry Donnelly. Larry is currently the manager of Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA). He is on leave from his post as Lecturer & Director of Clinical Legal Education at NUI Galway. Larry is also an Attorney at Law.
An interesting article in yesterday’s (31st March) Guardian by Alex Aldridge highlights a further, perhaps unanticipated, consequence of the ruthless cuts to legal aid in the United Kingdom: an increased demand on the pro bono services of law students. As the article points out, clinical legal education, already a core part of the curriculum in many law schools around the globe – from the United States to China – has grown significantly in popularity in UK law schools in recent years. Clinical legal education, though amenable to broad definition and embodied in a diverse range of programmes internationally, provides law students with practical experience of how the law works in the “real world” and instills in them a sense that law can be used to further the public interest and the cause of social justice. For example, as a result of the advocacy of law students in Kent University’s Law Clinic, a man received an award of £44,000 after being subjected to racist abuse at work.
The Guardian article notes the understandable fear that cuts to legal aid will curtail the learning by doing that is so central to the pedagogy of clinical legal education and will force law clinics to become mere processors of voluminous civil litigation matters of every stripe. And this fear of many students and law school clinicians is accompanied by their principled belief that the provision of civil legal aid is a government’s duty, not a luxury that it bestows magnanimously.
While I share their fear and their belief equally, in the long term, something very good may ultimately come of what is now undeniably bad. And that is a rapid growth of and radical innovation in clinical legal education programmes in the UK. The harnessing of the collective energy, enthusiasm and skills of a generation of law students to meet what is a dangerous threat to the principle of equal access to justice might just precipitate a dramatic transformation of the UK’s legal culture.
As an antidote to those who believe that today’s law students are “in it for the money,” an award-winning clinical law student at the University of Strathclyde notes that there are always far more volunteers to do pro bono work than available places. Also, the article details the partnerships that UK law schools are developing with community law centres, charities, quasi-governmental organisations and, potentially, law firms. These are the kinds of links that law schools in the US, where clinical legal education is most advanced, have long nurtured. Through these links, literally life-changing results have been achieved in the courts for many of those on society’s margins. What’s more, both empirical and anecdotal evidence in the US indicates that law students who participated in clinical programmes don’t forget their experience. Many become public defenders or legal services lawyers; those who work in large firms tend to champion those firms’ pro bono programmes. There’s no reason to expect that, in future, lawyers who are erstwhile clinical students in the UK will be any different.
Of course, that’s not to say that the US legal culture, where civil legal aid is hard to come by, is perfect or that cuts to civil legal aid in the UK are either welcome or justifiable. But as cuts take effect, the potential for a concurrent growth in clinical legal education programmes, especially at the elite law schools, as a concomitant effect of a rising demand for student pro bono services may be the one positive consequence of an otherwise lamentable development. Here’s hoping that, spurred by the many successes of existing clinical legal education programmes and the rise in internal and external demand for the programmes and their services, more UK law schools decide to tap into the reservoir of capacity that exists in their own students and invest in clinical legal education.
Closer to home, here’s hoping that what has been happening in the UK helps to expedite proactive efforts to implement mooted clinical initiatives in Irish law schools.