‘Open Justice – Reflections on teaching Human Rights’ by David Purdy

Prior to beginning the Open Justice module I held the preconception that pro-bono legal work was on the increase due to cuts in legal aid and was confined to the provision of advice and representation. However, as the module progressed, I was surprised to learn how broad the provision of pro-bono had become and was especially pleased to see that legal education is being treated with ever-increasing importance, prompting me to choose a Street Law activity, whereby I would work in a team of 4 other students to deliver a legal presentation to school pupils.

From the outset, I worked very productively with my team members. On reflection, this was made easier because my fellow students all shared my passion for promoting legal knowledge to those who would not normally have access to it. We all embraced the task and agreed to deliver an interactive presentation on human rights law which agreed was a topic which was both important and interesting to the audience. Additionally, whilst engaging closely with tutors, I began to learn that there is a broad desire to engage in pro bono activities within academic institutions such as the OU, a fact which is supported the materials I read and referenced in writing my first assignment from which I summarised that; “pro bono plays a valuable and productive role in increasing legal literacy and reaching out to marginalised groups with education projects [although] arguably encourages government to make further cuts which could further limit access to justice and damage the legal profession in the long term.”  On concluding the preparation of our presentation, I felt I had gained a comprehensive understanding of the pros and cons of providing free legal education and though there was an argument that pro bono enables the state to ignore it’s social responsibilities, I felt that the benefits of increasing access to legal knowledge massively outweighed this adverse effect. However, the true realisation of how important our work was had not yet emerged.

We delivered our presentation just as we had planned. It is no exaggeration to say that the response I felt from the audience placed the true importance of what we were doing into perspective. As I reflected in my portfolio; “This class of 16-year-olds at a Newcastle Secondary School appeared to be totally engaged. The make-up of our session meant that every pupil was actively involved, and the outward interest of these young people was incredible.”

The feedback from the pupils on the day told me that education on human rights and other legal rights and responsibilities is limited, if not non-existent in our national curriculum. As a society, how can we expect succeeding generations to understand their rights and obligations as citizens if nobody teaches them? I would strongly argue that these fundamental subjects should be included in mandatory education at a young age. However, until it is, the provision of legal education on a pro bono basis is not only important, but indispensable.

Ruth McFarlane : The OU at 50 – Students in Secure Environments

Over the last two years the Open Justice Centre has been successful in developing prison based pro bono projects. This success has been made possible by the support of the OU’s Students in Secure Environment Team who work to support prison learners studying with the OU. In this guest post Ruth McFarlane reflects on the OU’s 50 year record of making higher education accessible to students in prison.

Distance learning can be a lonely activity and we work hard at the OU to create learning communities so that students can engage with their peers and share experiences. We know that this can make a real difference, especially when students are finding things tough.

For OU students in prison, this isolation is exacerbated by the lack of social media or other online options increasingly available to mainstream students. However, the OU has been supporting students in prison since 1971 and we know that this environment offers other options for a study group and peer support to develop.

The new module W360 (Justice in Action) provides opportunities for OU Law students to undertake pro bono activities, including some public legal education projects which run in four prisons, as well as in schools and courts. Through collaboration between different teams within the OU, we have ensured that this also serves as an introduction to OU study for the participants in prison, many of whom have been encouraged to sign up for a degree following their engagement with the project.

Just as for mainstream students, all OU students in prison are allocated a tutor who supports them throughout a module, offering guidance and feedback on assignments. Where possible, tutors visit students in the prison or offer telephone support, and this also depends on the facilitation of prison education staff, many of whom are wonderful. The value of this tutor support was summed up by Liam, who served a 10 year sentence and completed his degree shortly after his release :

What needs to be acknowledged is the drive and determination of the Open University tutors I have had during my studies. Without a doubt, without them and their constant, active engagement with me and their encouragement when I wanted to give it all up I would not have completed my studies. The determination of the tutors when faced with the realities of a prison security department and the rules and restrictions was quite inspiring. It encouraged me to persevere and I am glad I did.

This quote reminds us of the importance of personal contact, which we are also developing through a series of open academic seminars now being held regularly in several prisons in the Midlands. These have been well attended by a very engaged audience, with OU academics who have presented on a wide range of topics from space science to politics. This is helping to increase the appetite for higher level study, and has the added benefit of giving academics more of an insight into the challenges of studying in prison, so that we can further tailor the support we offer.

At other establishments we have run study skills sessions focusing on generic skills such as note taking, referencing or exam preparation. These help to strengthen the learning culture within a prison and replicate some of the online help that is available for mainstream students. We currently have a student on ROTL working in our team preparing an evaluation of the impact of these sessions, which we look forward to sharing.

The OU orderly role was introduced at HMP Ashfield and is now in place across a number of universities where there are more than 20 OU students. The orderly is an experienced OU student who helps with administrative tasks such as registering for a module, keeping track of when assignments are due or taking bookings for computer use. They also arrange study groups for more generic support sessions, particularly for people who are new to OU study, who can benefit from the experience of others. We have found that this increased focus has made a real difference to student success, with average assignment scores going up, as well as overall student numbers in those prisons. This is an excellent way to demonstrate our commitment to the OU aim of “more students qualifying”.

Finally, we recognise the need to play to our strengths. We are a distance learning institution offering higher education to students in all prisons across the country. This means we can support people when they move across the estate and when they are released, but we cannot always offer the regular long-term local support that makes such a difference to students. We are really pleased to be developing links with a number of Prison University Partnerships, particularly the Inside Out programmes. This localised university engagement in prisons is recognised as offering a much-needed level of participation in higher education and we are now offering on-going accreditation pathways to students who want to pursue a degree while they are in custody and also when they are released.

Through all of these projects, we hope to increase opportunities for personal contact between students and university staff, across a large number of prisons. We have almost 1800 students in approximately 150 prisons and secure units across all security categories in the UK. Many of these initiatives are being facilitated by the Students in Secure Environments (SiSE) team at the OU, and if you haven’t yet heard about our fabulous colleague Stephen, please do take a moment to read his story, which has been featured as part of the OU 50th birthday celebrations:


And follow us on Twitter for more regular updates @OU_SiSE

‘The importance of making a difference through pro bono volunteering’ by Hannah Vo

Prior to studying the module W360 ‘Justice in action’, I was not sure what to expect, but was extremely excited for what might come. My core project was the Open Justice Law Clinic, which involved working in a team with other fellow students under the supervision of qualified solicitors with the aim of providing free legal advice to members of the public. I also undertook an extra-curricular activity called Digital Justice, which involved creating a web and app-based solution addressing different issues of employment law.

For each step that I took in the law clinic and Digital Justice,  I have received incredible support and the encouragement that I needed to keep on going by my W360 tutor and the Open Justice supervisor. During my participation in the law clinic, I have carried out different roles such as being a client contact person, an interviewer, a researcher, as well as drafting the proof of evidence and letters of advice. Through the Open Justice Digital project, I have learned how to use a simple website to create an Android app and made different decision trees. I have gain truly invaluable experience through these past four months, and I have been able to network with other students whilst improving my ability to work with different people. The teamwork has its challenges, but I have learned how important it is to work in groups because you truly cannot get far alone. We have supported each other in achieving our tasks and appreciated each other’s opinions.

I can reassure you that W360 : Justice in action will enrich your life whilst gaining relevant professional skills as I have mentioned above. Throughout my law degree, I have attended many legal and networking events, and so far, I have only heard about the importance of gaining legal work experience. If we could not get relevant legal work experience through, for instance, open days, vacation schemes, mini-pupillages, marshalling and so forth, then we should gain the relevant practical experience through pro bono volunteering because it would boost our CV and make us stand out. However, there is no mention whatsoever about the difference that we would make through pro bono volunteering. I will be completely honest that I chose this module sincerely to gain more employability skills. I wanted to gain practical legal experience to improve my prospects of obtaining a training contract at the end of my studies, just like I have been told all these years how important this is.

My first time I heard of the term ‘pro bono’ was in my first year of law school. I learned that it stands for ‘for the public good’, however, I did not know the importance of it until I have actually taken this module and completed my first case. I recall my team and I put our time and efforts in solving different legal issues. It was not easy and at the time very frustrating, but the moment when we sent the final letter of advice to the client and we knew that we have solved their issue, that feeling cannot be described. We just made a difference to someone else’s life, by using our legal knowledge to help a complete stranger in need without getting paid.

Through this module, I learned about the consequences of the legal aid cuts and different terms such as pro bono, social justice, professional identity, and legal ethics and values. I have also been given the opportunity to attend the Open Justice Street Law orientation in October 2018 and learned how to carry out a productive yet fun presentation with the focus on providing the members of the public with awareness, knowledge and understanding of different legal rights and issues through public legal education.

I have always thought that by volunteering I could make a difference to someone else’s life, but I never thought that volunteering would give my life more meaning. I have become more confident in different aspects of my life and have developed personal and professional skills. The value of pro bono legal work developed in the light of my participation in both the Open Justice activities has been vital and beyond my expectation. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: ‘the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’ I truly believe in those words. My desire to help people in need and the commitment to social justice has exceeded the desire to gain employability skills. I will definitely be involved in pro bono volunteering in the future because the experience will contribute to my further development and personal growth, which is considered as a great asset!

This journey has genuinely been personally fulfilling and rewarding.


Following a law student through a practical pro bono module (Part 2) By Sarah Couling

What happens when students and prisoners help one another?

When I left off last time, I was about to submit my final assignment before undertaking the practical pro bono projects. I am happy to report that I met the deadline and received some fantastic feedback that has assisted me in undertaking the projects. Having decided to separate the remaining portions of the blog; one for each project I have taken part in and a conclusion this blog will focus on my time in prison (and not for a crime).

I took part in a Prison Project at HMP Altcourse in Liverpool, which is a comfortable 2-hour drive from where I live in North Wales. Prior to our first of three sessions at the prison, we had a number of online meetings and set up a WhatsApp group to stay in touch. I think we all shared a similar level of nerves on that first arrival at the visitor’s centre of the prison. We were told to keep an open mind and be prepared to have our expectations shattered. But to imagine what it might be like was impossible.

Having been told not to forget out ID multiple times, we all checked in at the front desk and were given red ID badges to wear. We took note of the prominent signs that displayed all the items which were prohibited. Our phones were then switched off and stored in a locker on the outside. As we made our way to the university block, we passed though countless large metal doors that required locking on both sides. Our guide reassuringly told us that incidents don’t happen too frequently. I remember thinking ‘is it too late to change my mind and go back’?

I entered the prison tentatively with the preconceived idea that it would be like the movies, with orange jumpsuits and all. I was very wrong. It was only after entering the prison for the first time that I actually took the time to research and understand the purpose of a custodial sentence with rehabilitation at the forefront, which I have come to conclude is a wonderful thing.

We were given a full tour of the prison during the first session and my jaw hit the floor. The prison offered multiple classes and jobs for the prisoners. Teaching them a variety of skills from reading and writing, to art and practical skills. In one of the skills departments, the prison had little ‘bedrooms’ where they were taught to paint and decorate, giving the inmates invaluable practical skills for life after prison. I was amazed when walking through the university block, were the prisoner’s art work was on display. The talent that some of these young men have is breath-taking. It was lovely to see that they were able to pursue these passions, perhaps ones that they might not have discovered on the outside.

We stopped and had a chat with a prison mentor in the IT department. He told us how he went from knowing almost nothing about computers, but with his mentor’s support he learned so much. He then went on to become a mentor himself. It really was inspiring to see these men helping on another succeed.

Having left after that first session, I think we all had our eyes opened and our preconceptions shattered. Our purpose of entering the prison was to collect legal questions from the prisoners and present our answers on their radio station. I did not attend the second session at the prison due to prior commitments. However, the team tell me that they entered the vulnerable prisoner’s unit and collected a list of questions to go away and answer ready for the final session, our radio show. We split the questions up and began researching the answers. A fair few of the questions were related to subjects that we did not cover in the course of our LLB’s. However, the legal research skills we gained made finding authoritative sources of information easier. This was actually one of the questions we were asked on the day (whether finding the answers was easy).

The radio show was a success and we all presented our answers to the questions appropriately. Myself and my two colleagues answered a couple of questions on Imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences. This seemed to be a rather important question to the prisoners, and we did our very best to answer it for them. We also covered Home Detention Curfews, the rules surrounding spent convictions, the rules and requirements of the Sex Offenders Register, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, and the guidelines and rules surrounding sentencing. In addition to our legal questions, we all had to pick a song to be played, and it was a very eclectic mix of music. Including; Queen, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Toploader. I could not believe that the radio station was fully run by prisoners, with a friendly guard overseeing and assigning roles. It was wonderful to see the guard so visibly proud of the prisoner’s accomplishments, and rightly so as they were phenomenal. They were welcoming, kind, supportive, professional, and immensely talented at what they did.

I entered that prison thinking that I would be the one helping them, rather than them helping me. Again, I was wrong. I gained so much from the experience and I am so truly grateful to have met these fine young men. I fully support this type of prison program and I certainly encourage anyone with the opportunity to engage with prisoners to jump in. Programmes like this are helping to break down social barriers and create positive social change. They help change people’s attitudes towards different people, help to shatter incorrect preconceived ideas about prisons, and benefit both students and prisoners alike.

Louise Taylor: Independent Legal Representation for Crime Victims

In this guest post, Louise Taylor argues for a change in the way victims of crime are represented in the justice system. Louise is a full time PhD student with the OU Law school and is researching the development of a coercive control defence for domestically abused defendants. If you are considering studying for a law PhD and would like to contact Louise to discuss her experience of research, you can email her on louise.taylor@open.ac.uk

There are various points throughout the English and Welsh criminal justice process where victims would benefit from the provision of Independent Legal Representation (ILR) provided through the state-funded legal aid system. Such a development would be of particular benefit to victims in reducing the secondary victimisation that many experience as a result of their interactions with the Criminal Justice System.

Victim dissatisfaction and secondary victimisation can result from the lonely and sometimes hostile environment that victims are required to navigate in their pursuit of justice. This could be greatly ameliorated if victims were able to access free legal representation from an adviser who represented only the interests of the victim and who was experienced in the language and procedures of the criminal justice system. Access to ILR would also be of benefit to victims in ensuring that the agencies dealing with their cases (such as the police and CPS) were held to account in meeting the standards of support and protection required under the Victims’ Code of Practice 2013. The victim’s legal representative would be a single point of contact to offer advice to the victim and to access information on their behalf. This would prove particularly useful for those victims who wished to challenge the decisions of criminal justice agencies or utilise the Victims’ Code of Practice complaints mechanisms.

In the context of our adversarial system of justice the most controversial aspect of ILR relates to the provision of legal representation for victims during the trial process. Sam Garkawe advocates that ‘given [the] specific interest of the victim, the laws of procedural fairness seem to suggest that victims should receive consideration throughout the proceedings on the basis that they are substantially affected.’ Arguably the best way of protecting these specific interests is to provide victims with legal aid in order that they can secure their own legal representation. Not only would this allow victims to be better supported to give their best evidence in court, this would also provide victims with much more robust protection from over-zealous questioning by defence counsel than could ever be achieved under our current arrangements.

However, opponents of ILR contend that such a development would interfere with the defendant’s right to receive a fair trial, and more particularly, that the introduction of a third party to proceedings who would stand in opposition to the defendant’s position would undermine the central tenet of equity of arms which underpins our bipartisan adversarial tradition. This may be so if an ILR approach was adopted which put victims on an equal footing with the defendant, but there are clearly approaches that could be adopted that would fall short of that, allowing for the observance of the defendant’s rights while offering increased support and protection to victims. Other common law jurisdictions have been successful in doing so and there is no reason to think that this could not be similarly achieved in this jurisdiction. Indeed, as Fiona Raitt has explained:

‘Several common law jurisdictions, e.g. Ireland and Canada, have introduced specialised procedures for legal representation at specific procedural stages, or, as in the US, promote a far more robust, prosecutorial-driven case-building approach linked to more direct access by complainants to prosecutors.’

If one of these compromise approaches could be adopted in England and Wales then the adversarial nature of our system should not, in itself, constitute an insurmountable barrier preventing the provision of ILR through legal aid for crime victims. A much more real and present threat is however presented by the extensive austerity measures that were introduced to this jurisdiction in 2013 under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. In a climate where the government seek to save £220 million from the £1 billion annual criminal legal aid budget it is unlikely to prove politically and economically viable for the government to support the introduction of ILR for victims funded by the public purse.

During such challenging times it is also likely that the legal profession would be reluctant to support such a development. Where would the legal representatives for victims come from if not from the existing pool of criminal solicitors and barristers who may be understandably reluctant to become further embroiled in the uncertain and challenging legal aid market? Many of these potential advisers may also feel precluded from supporting ILR for victims at a point when many consider that the interests of defendants have been significantly and inappropriately undermined by the government’s cuts to the legal aid budget.

For more information see my full contribution to the EU funded project Improving Protection of Victims’ Rights: Access to Legal Aid which can be accessed here:  http://victimsrights.eu/

Pamela Grealy: Legal Advice Assistant- Immigration and Asylum Support

Pamela Grealy: Legal Advice Assistant- Immigration and Asylum Support

with Lambeth Law Centre from 04.7.17 to 12.12.18

I am a retired schoolteacher and studied law with the Open University after my retirement. I graduated in 2017. I have worked with immigrant families and asylum seekers in the past.

I applied for this position with Lambeth Law Centre not least because a fellow law student was taken into detention in his final year of study. With no legal aid available, he managed his own case for leave to remain and failed. Before he could be deported, he committed suicide.

In preparation for the role, I participated in a five-day online training course towards OISC level 1 accreditation in Immigration law. I provided support to a highly experienced and overworked Immigration lawyer during her advice sessions at an Immigration Hub in Greenwich which operates a drop-in advice service. It is a welcome respite for families in real need, providing lunch and refreshments donated by local shops, prepared and served by the team of kitchen volunteers. On one day per week, outreach workers provide collaborative support in immigration advice, housing advice, support for survivors of domestic violence, advice for families facing destitution, help in accessing healthcare. A team of Hub volunteers identify the initial needs and priorities.

My role was to upload client details to the database and key points from the interviews. When an interview became intense and distressing, I would divert the children’s attention or play separately with them for a time. The Home Office may apply discretion within the Rules, and any room for doubt leads to inevitable refusal. If a client’s story seemed confused, I would go through points in detail with them separately for clarification. This work would be written up as a supporting statement in an application to the Home Office or in answer to a refusal under appeal.

Due to lack of funding and capacity, clients are given guidance to make their own applications to whatever extent possible. It was always a joy some months later when relieved and grateful people returned to update us on their success.

Legal aid is available only in certain circumstances; for asylum seekers, those fleeing domestic violence and victims of trafficking. Exceptional case funding is available for cases deemed to have merit where human rights or European rights would be breached if they did not have legal aid. Solicitors with a legal aid contract can apply for costs to run these cases but it does not cover the true expense and many will not take on the work.

Trafficked people are often unaware of the nature of the crime and their human rights. That they have been trafficked at all often emerged during careful and direct questioning about the perpetrator’s systematic behaviour and all the surrounding facts. One of the first women I met having escaped her abuser, was sleeping on a church floor. By day she was on the streets and had on one occasion been attacked by a group of youths. She was malnourished and suffered mental ill health. Over the months, she began to flourish with support from the outreach and local authority services. Others brought to the UK by ‘boyfriends’ with promise of marriage and a good life, had escaped situations of dreadful abuse. The support of other services was vital, and the safety of the woman and any children always the first consideration.

It is however, often difficult to prove that a person’s Article 8 rights will be abused if returned to their country of origin. At a rigorous Home Office interview, applicants are challenged on the detail of their asylum claim. The lawyer tried to prepare women beforehand in an attempt to prevent their re-traumatisation.

Under the ‘hostile environment’ policy, overstayers have no right to study, be legally employed or rent accommodation. Without recourse to public funds they are charged for hospital treatment. We learned of resulting health problems for women afraid to attend ante natal and maternity services. With persisting ill health and concerns about her child, one woman was referred to Doctors of the World;  a medical charity supporting excluded people, including asylum seekers, undocumented migrants and homeless people,  to access health care.

I feel that the ‘hostile environment’ policy is compounded by the UK’s long period of austerity. Law Centres and voluntary organisations battle with limited resources to give impoverished immigrant individuals and families in the UK, access to justice. Without legal aid or pro bono legal help, the chances of successfully navigating the Immigration Rules, the application or appeals process for leave to remain in this country, are somewhat remote. Clearly, local authority and charitable organisations struggle to cope with the enormity of the inherent injustice in the system.

The rewards of pro bono volunteering by Mohan Ramcharan

It was a proud moment for me to contribute the very first guest blog on this forum – “Pro bono saved me”. For me it was a sobering reflection on a very stressful, indeed depressing, time of my life when my health did not permit me clarity of thought and the ability to help myself. The fact that a newly-minted lawyer was kind enough – even if it was her job – to go the length she did to help me, and make my life significantly improved, made a very strong impression on me.

If I have to be completely honest, I have never actively thought about getting involved in pro bono work. I think, for me at least, it has always been part of my internal ethical character – to help people who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances, mainly in part because of my personal circumstances. I had worked many years in social welfare, as well as doing voluntary work in the community, and assisting several government initiatives (in Trinidad and Tobago) to help those who were not capable of helping themselves.

Since March 2018, I have been volunteering as an adviser in the advice centre at my local community centre. I would like to think that I have made a difference in the lives of the clients who visit seeking assistance. I have had success stories; for example, the single mother living on benefits who bought a cooker which was defective – condemned within a few days of purchase – and the company refused to replace it for nearly one year. Law students will know that this is a breach of the Consumer Rights Act 2015. After I got involved, it was replaced within a couple of weeks. I remember when the client came to say thank you, she literally had tears in her eyes, as she could not afford to buy a new cooker.

I see many people who have been living in atrocious circumstances. Usually, it is the City Council that appears to be most at fault but also private landlords. Many times, repairs are not done in a timely or adequate manner and can cause significant health problems for tenants. Mould and damp are much too common and cause respiratory problems. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of these problems put the health of little children at risk – considerably more so than adults. The problem is so bad that I now have a standard paragraph in my complaint letters:

“The RSPCA would certainly disapprove of an animal living under these conditions! In fact, I dare say that the owner of any animal living in such accommodation would soon be prosecuted in court.”

The fact that Councils try to balance the use of resources against the health and well-being of tenants is certainly not a problem as far as the rights of tenants are concerned – Hotak & Ors v London Borough of Southwark & Anor (Rev 1) [2015] UKSC 30 made that very clear:

“an authority’s duty under Part VII of the 1996 (Housing) Act is not to be influenced or affected by the resources available to the authority. Once they have determined the status of an applicant under Part VII of the 1996 Act, their duty to that applicant is as defined in the Act: the fact that the authority may be very short of money and/or available accommodation cannot in any way affect whether an applicant is in priority need. In so far as a balancing exercise between housing the homeless and conserving local authority resources is appropriate, it has been carried out by Parliament when enacting Part VII.” [Emphasis added].

“Aha!”, you may say, “That only refers to homeless people.”

Well, under the Homelessness Code of Conduct Guidance, “a person who has accommodation is to be treated as homeless where it would not be reasonable for them to continue to occupy that accommodation.” [Emphasis added].

In the latter part of 2018 I represented a client in Small Claims Court, pursuant to Section 3(1) of the Lay Representatives (Rights of Audience) Order 1999, and as set out in CPR 27 and PD 27, paras. 3.1 and 3.2.

The client had a leaking roof since 2010. The City Council owned the property then and did not do any effective repairs. In 2016, the client bought the apartment he was living in. It was one apartment, in a building that contained 4 such apartments. The result was that he owned the apartment under a lease for the building, which was still owned by the Council and who was still responsible for repairs to the outside of the apartment where the client lived, including the roof of course.

The leak in the roof continued up to February 2018 this year when the client filed his claim in court, then the Council hastily put down a tar covering on the roof to stop the leak. It wasn’t enough, as by then 8 years of leaks had damaged his apartment to some severity. He was so stressed he had to be medicated and treated for depression and anxiety.

At court, the Council was represented by a barrister, a solicitor and a junior lawyer. Plus, the Council’s witness who was the person responsible for the computer system that logs the repair calls and passes the jobs to the repair contractors. This witness brought in a partial list of the call logs for the past 8 years showing that when the tenant (my client) called to get repairs done, he was not at home when the workers turned up. 13 pages of call logs.

But here was the Council’s mistake. The barrister argued first that the tenant, my client, had a responsibility to call the Council to repair the roof. The 13 pages of call logs showed that the tenant had in fact been in contact many times. This was a startling error in my view.

Second, he argued that the tenant/my client should be home to allow access to the roof. I merely pointed out to the judge that the Council’s own witness said in his witness statement that the roof was accessed at least twice using an elevated electrical platform from outside and that was at times the tenant was not at home.

The result was that the judge agreed that my client had no duty to inform the Council more than he already did, that he was not needed to access the roof and that the statutory law, as well as his lease, made the Council responsible for the repairs. He was awarded £6000, plus costs.

There are some lessons to learn from the anecdotes I related:

a. No matter how experienced you are in law, you can make elementary mistakes.

b. Do not be intimidated by the reputation or status of your opponent.. Prepare your argument well, and you have nothing to fear, or be ashamed of.

c. The law is not contained only in statute or statutory instruments. There may be guidance orders, case law etc and a well-prepared argument involves spending time on research, even if you do not need it in court or in your arguments. Better be prepared.

d. Don’t be afraid to be assertive on behalf of your client.

e. The law is both a shield, to protect your clients, and a sword, to assert their rights. Used appropriately, the battle is half-won.

f. Mind map everything. I actually presented my case to the judge as a printed mind map.

g. Clearly state that you are making a “formal complaint” when writing your complaint letter/email. Without the use of the words ‘formal complaint’, a complaint is treated as an informal complaint and there is no requirement to act upon it (advice from the Housing Ombudsman).

h. Always put complaints in writing. Never by phone calls – but if you do make calls, log the date, time and name of the person taking the complaint.

i. Keep copies of all your documents. You may need them as evidence if you need to go to court.

j. Resolving problems take time. Don’t get (too) impatient but follow the policies and complaint procedures and allow the time limits for responses and resolution.

k. Do not hesitate to escalate your complaints. Remember, the law does not help those who ‘slumber’ on their rights.

There may be other lessons that more experienced lawyers can share. This is a few that I have learnt in my volunteering experience so far.I hope more people do get into pro bono work.

Following a law student through a practical pro bono module (Part 1) By Sarah Couling

Moving into the final year of my law degree at the Open University Law School, I was given the option choose my final module. W360 Justice in Action is a new, practical module offered by the Open University which started in October 2018. I jumped at the opportunity to put the legal skills that I have obtained to practical use, through supervised pro bono work. The Open Justice Project began its development in 2016 and is managed by the Open Justice Team. It provides access to legal support through an online law clinic and provides Public Legal Education sessions. It also innovatively provides students with a more engaging method of learning, by allowing them to both consolidate and utilize their legal knowledge and provide an avenue to obtain useful practical skills. Which will arguably shape better graduates with more practical legal skills right from graduation.

Flash forward to today and the second presentation of W360 is well underway. Being overly keen, I signed up for as many projects as I could while ensuring I could manage the load and not burn out. The module is fantastically well designed, it takes you on a journey of development and self-discovery, which you must document and reflect on. Starting with an introduction to pro bono work and why it is important. Followed by an exploration of three key themes social justice, professional identity and legal values and ethics. I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring these topics and was surprised to find that a commitment to pro bono work throughout your career provides countless benefits. Benefits not just for yourself, but towards improving access to justice and changing the face of the legal profession.

After completing the first written assignment of the module, you begin to learn and develop the key practical skills you will need for undertaking the pro bono activities. Particularly, practical legal research, interviewing and advising clients, legal writing, presentation and public speaking skills. The module has provided me with multiple opportunities to test out these key skills in a safe environment, allowing me to be ready to utilize them in the upcoming activities. You are encouraged to engage with your tutor group and interact as much as possible. I have found this to be immensely worthwhile, giving and receiving feedback from peers has not only helped me learn, but has increased my confidence tenfold.

Meanwhile, you are given information about the activities you’ll be taking part in and who you will be working with on these projects. This is when I began to get really excited about the weeks ahead. As I mentioned, I opted to take part in as many activities as I could fit into my schedule. As such, I was allocated the Open Justice online law clinic as my ‘core’ project and will also take part in a school based Streetlaw session, as well as the Open Justice Prison Project. I was provided with detailed and easy to follow guides for each project. The guides set out exactly what the project entails and what is expected of me. I learned the importance of client confidentiality, professionalism, safe guarding, ensuring my wellbeing and understanding relevant policies and procedures. Giving me, what I can only describe as, the best possible tools to undertake the pro bono activities.

The next step involved meeting my teammates. A key part of the module is working and collaborating with a small team of fellow peers. We were introduced fairly early on and given tools and resources to allow effective communication. Communication is what I class as the most important element of team work! It has been fantastic to begin building relationships with my teammates and I am looking forward to seeing these development over the coming months. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting so many students as enthusiastic as me. I have found the support of the Open Justice Team and the module tutors in nurturing these relationships invaluable. The level of attention to detail and support is above reproach.

I have one assignment left to do before I begin the activities and I feel that I could not have been put in a better position to undertake them. Having now met with all my teammates and started the ball rolling with preparation for the projects, I am feeling excited, confident and ready to take part. I hope to share my experiences along the way in the hope that others will consider taking part and to show just how wonderful teaching and learning in this way can be for students, teachers and the public at large. Until next time, wish me luck!

2018 Open Justice Award Winner Lidia Dancu reflects on her experience working with the Open Justice Centre

The most rewarding experience of my LLB has been my involvement with the pro-bono activities. I have always been passionate about access to justice, but being able to be involve myself and to contribute gave me the first hand experience needed to complete my understanding of its complexity and how pro bono work fits into that.

I was fortunate to be able to be involved in the pilot online legal advice clinic from its inception in 2017 so I had the opportunity to be involved in a number of cases. As part of the Law in Action module, I chose to do school presentations and due to a number of factors I was able to run four different sessions, three in Scotland and one in the North of England.

What has impressed me most was the passion, enthusiasm and commitment of the Open Justice team who provided teaching, guiding and supervision, whether in the online law clinic or with the public legal education activities. No question was out of place and no request for help was too much.  The atmosphere has always been of collegiate collaboration, rather than having a hierarchical structure with the qualified solicitors at the top and us wannabe lawyers at the bottom.  In the legal advice clinic, we were encouraged to take ownership of a matter and to apply what we learned theoretically during the course in a practical way.  During the public legal education activities, we were charged with educating young people about the law and were trusted with an ambassadorial role.  Being given this level of responsibility, inevitably leads to a desire to create and deliver quality work.  And in order to do so, you must acquire a variety of legal skills, like legal research, communication and analytical reasoning which are invaluable as a future lawyer.  You also engage with concepts of ethics and conflicts of interest which often provide room for further reflection.

A big part of the pro-bono work has been teamwork, which had its challenges but also its rewards: learning collaboration, better communication and leadership, but at the most fundamental level, simply being able to discuss a legal issue and to bounce ideas. When undertaking school presentations it was great to be able to have the support of your team when required.

Working in the legal advice clinic provided the perfect complementary understanding of the law. I am now of the opinion that the study of law without having the practical experience of working with real clients on real cases, is incomplete, regardless of whether one intends to practice or go into academia. Apart from the scope of testing applicability of the law, the pro-bono work provided me with a broader substantive experience by giving me the opportunity to gain a deeper knowledge in areas of law which I wasn’t familiar with, or to consolidate my existing knowledge.

Being involved in pro-bono work also provided me with a testing ground for a career in practicing law. I know with complete certainty now that I wish to practice law, which is not something I knew when I embarked on my degree.  Further, it has allowed me to start developing my own concept of what my professional identity is and the kind of lawyer I want to become.  I have always been motivated primarily by the need to right wrongs and to contribute to social justice, so being able to become, however small, a cog in the access to justice machine has been not only personally rewarding but also satisfied that need we all have to be of service to our fellow man and to be connected in some positive way to our community.

W360 Alumni Kevin Cawley talks about his experience of studying ‘Justice in action’

In 1983, as a spotty faced 15-year-old I wrote in the programme for the school play, that I was going work in law. Fast forward 35 years and I finally fulfilled that prophecy thanks to the Open University and Open Justice activities!

While personal circumstances on leaving sixth form steered me away from university and into full time employment, I’d always maintained a burning ambition to one day study law. In 2014 that day arrived. Four years, one heart attack and tens of thousands of words later, I’d also experienced what it was like to work in the law.

Ok, so I’ve been self-employed for 20 years in an industry which requires little legal knowledge. I may continue down this route, it’s given me a reasonable standard of living and as a bloke just past 50, I’ve considered myself too old to enter the legal profession on a full-time basis. However, as I mentioned earlier, Open Justice has afforded me the opportunity I craved.

The module offers pro bono opportunities for the students. A diverse range of practical legal activities – from school presentations to providing information for prisoners – provide a fantastic platform to build upon for those seeking to enter the legal profession, by enhancing your own employability skills and creating a personal feel good factor.

I engaged in a project which was independent of the module itself and proved a really exciting opportunity and one I could not miss. The remit was to visit HMP Sudbury on three occasions, hold meetings with the prison peer advisors to determine what information they required for those nearing release in various areas, research the law and then present our findings to them. Without the OU it is a chance I never would have had and herein lies the crux of the Open Justice activities.

They provide openings which may never appear again and present a golden opportunity to experience the working environment of a legal professional. Now a 51-year-old balding male, I am forever grateful to the OU for confirming my programme bio back in ’83.