Nothing better than the real thing
30 November 2004
Undergraduatelawschool involvement in pro bono is a thorny issue. Law school heads mutter that running a clinic is too expensive, that students are just not interested and that law degrees should be purely academic. But students at institutions in which there are clinics turn out in their droves and thoroughly enjoy the experience.
There are only around six universities in the UK that offer their students this unique way of learning about the law in practice and performing a public service. One of these is Kent Universitys law school, which runs an in-house, full representation law clinic. Amazingly, the university first established its law clinic in 1972, although this foundered and fell into disuse in the late 1970s. The current clinic was reborn in 1992 when two pro bono initiatives run by students, staff and volunteers united to form Kent Law Clinic (KLC). John Fitzpatrick is the director of the clinic, while Catherine Carpenter and Lorna Collopy are employed as supervising solicitors.
The KLC takes on cases for local people across a range of social welfare law. Students undertake the full conduct of cases for clients, from interview to advocacy. The beauty of the clinic is that students can choose their level of involvement; so while some just attend the meeting where the cases are discussed, others go the whole hog and take the clinical option on their degree. This requires them to take on cases and write an 8,000-word dissertation. Students can also be coordinators, which means they interview clients at the drop-in centre, reporting back the next day, as well as working at the clinics reception. Besides individual casework, the KLC also works on behalf of community groups and carries out legal research and lobbying.
The clinics staff costs are salaries amounting to the rough equivalent of two full-time lecturers, but powering its engine are the students and lawyers who volunteer.
Fitzpatrick is keen to dispel the belief that running a pro bono clinic is solely vocational and skills-orientated. We take the academic benefits very seriously, he says. Being part of the KLC, argues Fitzpatrick, enables students to see how the law works in practice. He claims that the students who participate in the KLC achieve more first-class degrees than their non-participating counterparts.
Lawyer 2B spent a couple of days getting to know the KLC first-hand.
The Kent Law Clinic is nestled away in the bowels of Kent Universitys Eliot Building and is not easy to find. The KLC itself is no bigger than a lecturers office, but its humble appearance masks major achievements. Since its inception in 1992, it has assisted more than 5,000 people and receives around 450 new inquiries a year. Through litigationornegotiation,ithas obtained or made savings for its clients totalling nearly 700,000.
Students squeeze in and lounge about as if it were a common room, while some on the clinical option research intently.
One of these students is Kelly Blundell, who is preparing for an unfair dismissal case that came into the KLC less than a week ago. Tomorrow, accompanied by Carpenter, she will attend a tribunal. Both have been burning the midnight oil to get as prepared as possible.
It will be a tough case, says Fitzpatrick. Shes facing the employer. Hes already shouted at Kelly and said hes going to give her and the tribunal a piece of his mind.
Samantha Loader, a 2004 Kent law graduate, who was awarded second place in the Solicitors Pro Bono Group (in association with Lawyer 2B) Student Challenge Award, says being able to do the clinical option really gives you a sense of fulfilment.
You really do feel like you can really make a difference, adds Loader. In the majority of our cases we do make a difference to someones life.
Loader says the other reason that the law clinic works so well is the supportive community it creates among the students. She points out that it was her contemporaries from the law clinic who were responsible for restarting the law society at the university.
It is time to start making our way to
St Stephens Community Centre, the venue for one of the two drop-in centres run by the KLC. In a charitable move, both venues donate their rooms for free. Tonight at St Stephens, second year students Harriet Miles and Jemma Wear will act as coordinators, whileJoLevy,alocalauthority solicitor, advises.
Drop-in is a slight misnomer, as the people who visit the clinic will have made appointments through the clinic reception. They are then allocated a slot according to when the solicitor most able to answer their questions is available. Tonight we are due to hear
a few family cases, as Levy has experience in this area.
Levy is actually a Kent University law school alumni. When she was a student 11 years ago the clinic had just started and she has been hooked ever since. I loved it while I was at uni and I still do, she comments. As well as advising the clients throughout the evening, she gives the student coordinators helpful tips and food for thought on existing cases.
It looks as if the first client, a family case, is going to be a no-show, which is, apparently, a rarity. The no-shows tend to be family because of the emotions involved, says Levy.
They turn their attention to the next case: a woman who claims she is owed 32. As it will cost 30 to take the case to a small claims court, it is questionable whether it is worth pursuing. Youll get a lot of this, Levy says to the coordinators. You have to learn to break the news that it will cost more to take it to court.
The client turns up and it soon becomes clear that she is in no mood to let things lie.
The students switch quickly into professional mode, and Miles, who is due to report back on the cases in tomorrows meeting, leads the interview.
The client, Mrs C, had cleared an overgrown garden for an elderly woman. When Mrs C went to collect the payment she says the woman refused to open the door. Mrs C says she had done some gardening and shopping for the elderly woman before and had received payment so did not understand why she was refusing to pay. I just dont want to be taken for a ride, comments Mrs C. I worked hard for that money.
Levy explains that going through the courts would mean she would have to pay out 30, and advises that in the first instance Mrs C write a letter, which the clinic may be able to help with. Levy states that the ultimate enforcement, when all other avenues have been exhausted, would be that bailiffs take property from the womans house to the value of the debt.
The prospect of the letter seems to please Mrs C. You want to give me a hand? Yes, lets do a letter with nice strong language and legal jargon, she says.
Next up is Mr D. His father passed away last month and he has been trying to tie up the loose ends. His fathers electricity company had not billed him for some time and, when prompted by Mr D, it sent him a bill for 438.
Mr D is now very worried that, as executor of his fathers estate, paying the bill is his responsibility. He has written a letter to the company but is worried that this might not be sufficient. As he says: Writings not one of my strong points.
Mr Ds father lived in a council house and the only assets he left were the property in the house and a car valued at 80. The property in the house is not worth much more.
Levy reassures Mr D that utility companies are quite good when it comes to this situation. Write to them and say theres nothing in the estate and ask them what they want to do. Once they see that, I would have thought theyd write it off, she says.
Ive been getting all this conflicting advice from people. This has put my mind at rest, confides Mr D.
Aw, bless, coos everyone once he has left.
The next client, Ms F, is concerned about the behaviour of her ex-husband in relation to their two daughters, aged 11 and 12. He has just moved to Spain and the last time they visited him for a three-week holiday he spent the entire time working and his new wifes son and their paternal grandmother was left to care for them. The older girl was so worried about this that she phoned her mother. Also, against Ms Fs express wishes, he allowed them to have their noses pierced, and she thinks he may allow them to get their navels pierced as well.
Through her daughters she has learnt that he wants them to fly out to see him on Boxing Day. This is not an arrangement that he has raised with her.
To cap it all, since moving to Spain, the Child Support Agency has stopped taking maintenance money from Ms Fs ex-husband.
If he doesnt have to pay for the children, what right does he have to say to me what they do, complains Ms F.
Levy says that the court orders in place need revising to reflect the change in circumstances. She also advises Ms F to take a residence order, and one for maintenance too. As there is no residence order in place there is not a great deal that can be done about the piercings, but Levy advises that Ms F takes a prohibitive steps order, which could state that the children are not to have their navels pierced.
As Ms F is on income support, this can all be funded through legal aid.
Ms F was the last appointment, so the clinic is at an end. Out of the three it is really only Mrs Cs case that can be taken forward to the meeting tomorrow.
In a large room in Eliot Building the regular Tuesday meeting is about to start. This is where the students share their experiences of the cases from the night before and analyse them with the help of the clinic staff. This is also a chance for updates on any new developments that have occurred since the last meeting.
Fitzpatrick describes Kelly Blundells case, while Collopy reveals that another clinical option student, Mel Court, had helped keep a woman with learning disabilities who had not paid her community charge out of prison.
Elections for the chair of the KLC take place. The eventual winner, second-year student Shantala Tschanett, pledges to canvass students on whether the clinic should accept donations and whether the hugely oversubscribed clinical module should continue to pick its students through ballot, or whether past involvement with the KLC should count towards whether someone is chosen for the option.
The meeting has an informal feel, with students sitting on the floor and sofas shouting out questions, while Fitzpatrick prompts and encourages.
His first question is always: What area of law are we in?
Miles explains Mrs Cs case. Due to the size of the non-payment, initially no one seems to be taking it very seriously. But Fitzpatrick, who seems to have a wise saying for every occasion up his sleeve, tells those assembled that its easy to sleep on another mans wound, and asks for suggestions of a way forward.
After taking ideas from the floor, Fitzpatrick says a good first step would be to contact the other side, with Mrs Cs permission.
Claire Ponsford, who attended the other drop-in centre, describes the case of a Ms B. She had worked at a bar and had taken a week off last year after taking an overdose, and this year had 12 weeks off due to depression. She had doctors notes for both absences. While she was away during the second spell she was made redundant, and Ms B claims that someone has been employed in her place.
Following a volley of questions to Ponsford on the specifics from those assembled, it is time for the students to put their employment law hats on. Fitzpatrick gets them to name the four reasons why an employer might dismiss an employee (redundancy, misconduct, incapacity or some other substantial reason), then asks for a definition of a redundancy situation.
Giventhatsomeonehasbeen employed in her place, there could be a strong case for unfair dismissal.
But there is another factor here, says Fitzpatrick. After many wrong guesses, incoming chair Tschanett saves the day: that the employer, when dismissing someone, must do so reasonably. Sending a letter to an employee who is in their sick bed suffering from depression to inform them of their redundancy is not reasonable. Its a subsection that so many employers fall down on, says Fitzpatrick.
The meeting ends, but not before Fitzpatrick has quoted the SAS motto, Who dares wins, to inspire the students in their work.
"It was probably the scariest but most exhilarating experience of my life," is how Ellis describes handling the case of Ms H.
Ellis, alongside the supervising solicitor Catherine Carpenter, was given less than two weeks to prepare for the tribunal hearing, as the Citizens Advice Bureau which was originally handling the case found that it had no one available to help.
Describing her situation, Ms H says: "It was horrible. I wanted to work right through the pregnancy to save money and I was worried I wasn't going to have any money once the baby was born. It had thrown all my plans out of the window."
Ellis says the clinic tries to find a balance between supporting the students while letting them have ownership of their cases. "They double-check things and give you guidance, but at the same time leave you to your own devices so that you're getting the practical experience," she says. "I valued this, as it didn't feel as though the case was being taken away from me."
During the tribunal, as with all the clinic cases, the student does all the talking, although they get chances to confer with their supervisors during breaks.
The case went well for Ms A, although the tribunal chairman unexpectedly threw out the unfair dismissal element of the claim. "We knew we didn't have a case for that, but it was a matter we had to make representations for at the time," says Ellis.
Ms A says she had no problem with the fact that Ellis was just a student and used her as the first port of call when she wanted to know something about the case. "I felt quite confident in her; she seemed to know what she was doing," comments Ms Ellis. She has since recommended the law clinic to her friends and family.