Law clinics are a developing tool for both legal skills-based and academic education. As well as providing students with experience of law in action and a practical base for academic enquiry, law clinics are seen, and should be supported, as an important means of implementing universities’ ‘Widening Participation’ agenda. They provide practical legal work experience, and experience of clients facing social problems that many students will never face themselves.
From PLP’s perspective an interesting theme to emerge from this work was to scrutinise the extent to which university clinics are ‘pro bono’, in a traditional or literal sense. University law clinics have an increasingly high profile in the ‘access to justice’ community, but providing legal services to the socially disadvantaged is not a primary reason for clinics’ existence. The primary reason for their existence is educational. This creates the potential for tension that must be managed.
A further theme to emerge was true cost. The services provided by clinics may be free for the (necessarily limited) number of clients that receive help from units directly or indirectly, but they are not cheap. Law clinics require high staff resources, and students require intense supervision. Clinics themselves are at great pains to emphasise that their capacities are very limited, and that such limitations make it inconceivable that law clinics will ever be able to plug current gaps in service provision caused by recent legal aid cuts amongst other things.
This research establishes that public law casework is particularly challenging for law clinics. The need to identify issues of law before commencing a case, tight deadlines for bringing claims and lodging tribunal appeals, the potential consequences for clients of the normal litigation costs rules (explained below) and the complex and often protracted nature of public law cases generally, all militate against their being taken up. One other issue worth noting is that the regulatory framework applicable to law clinics’ legal work is not straightforward (PLP provides a provisional analysis of the relevant legislation in appendix 2 of this report).
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