Clinical Legal Education as an Access to Justice Innovation

We are delighted to publish this from Dr Gráinne McKeever, Reader at the School of Law, Ulster and Associate Director of the Ulster Law Clinic. This was originally posted at on the Oxford Human Rights Hub.

Imagine you got grant funding to develop an access to justice research agenda. Your grant application proposes the appointment of a team of law graduates to conduct research within a particular advice organisation: to talk to all the clients who come for advice; to understand why, when and how clients seek legal help; to see the difficulties for clients in engaging with dispute resolution systems; to understand where the disconnect is between what clients need and what the system provides.

Imagine that, by the end of a 12-month research contract, the researchers themselves were trained advisers, who did not just observe other advisers but were also helping to meet unmet legal need, by providing advice and advocacy for the clients of this organisation. Imagine that while your researchers provided the knowledge base and data sets that allowed you to deepen your research on access to justice and legal need, they were simultaneously developing – individually and collectively – their own informed socio-legal analysis of these and related issues. Imagine that the quality of research and advocacy provided by your researchers was sufficient to gain them a LLM in Clinical Legal Education.

In September 2012, Ulster University’s LLM Clinical Legal Education began with such an imagined process, but instead of grant-funded access to an external advice organisation, Law School staff developed an in-house legal laboratory in the shape of the Ulster Law Clinic, around which the LLM in Clinical Legal Education is constructed. Based on Nuffield-funded research conducted by this author for Law Centre (NI) (which identifies unmet legal need for users of social security and employment tribunals in Northern Ireland), the LLM in Clinical Legal Education was established to develop an understanding of the nature of this defined legal need. It achieved this by training graduate law students to provide advice and advocacy for members of the public with social security and employment law problems, while also creating a space for staff and students to reflect on and analyse the manifestations and implications of the legal problems faced by Clinic clients.

The Ulster Law Clinic’s thematic focus is on access to justice and the contribution that Clinic staff and students can make – practically and intellectually – to this enterprise. In recognition of this, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice provides an annual full-fees Access to Justice Scholarship, and scholarship recipients in turn provide the Department with an access to justice report based on the Clinic’s work. As a pro bono enterprise, the model has been extremely effective. In 2013-14, ten student clinicians provided over 500 hours of legal support to members of the public, under the supervision of Ulster Law Clinic Directors, covering complex legal problems including discrimination, redundancy and social security overpayments. The programme was awarded the 2014 LawWorks and Attorney General’s award for best new pro bono activity in the UK and the current (government commissioned) review of Access to Justice in Northern Ireland points to the Ulster Law Clinic as an example of how alternative models of access to justice can be delivered. The programme has now captured international imagination and has been nominated for an Innovating Justice award by the Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law(HiiL) which recognises “novel ideas with a strong potential of delivering concrete justice results”. The Ulster Law Clinic joins 17 other nominations from around the world, from India, to Malawi, to the US, but it is the only nomination from a Law School in the UK or Ireland, and only one of three nominations that come under a clinical legal education umbrella. Nonetheless, the Ulster Law Clinic is built on the strong foundation of clinical legal education in these jurisdictions, and clearly demonstrates the value of clinical legal education in terms of access to justice, educational experience, community engagement and research development. In short, the HiiL nomination exemplifies the potential for clinical legal education to deliver concrete and innovative justice solutions that can inform and be informed by an access to justice focused research agenda.

If you would like to support the Ulster Law Clinic’s nomination in the HiiL Innovating Justice Awards 2014, you can vote online.