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.


Public legal education at HMP Altcourse: Part 3 by Sharon Taylor

Legal Eagles in HMP Altcourse prison by Sharon Taylor

“I am going to prison in Liverpool!” – these was my words during the first three Tuesdays of my summer right after the final exams. I am an Open University student studying Law who’s recently taken Public and Criminal Law. Being an OU Law student gave me the privilege of working00 on a very exciting project alongside a fantastic group where there were four more student like myself and an amazing tutor were formed as a team. The project was a radio broadcasting programme to address the prisoners legal and some general queries and concerns as obviously they were not able to access this information. Our team? we were the Legal Eagles!

First things first – I am sure I am not the only one who when they hear the word prison, the initial reaction would be “criminals” or maybe some would even say “hell”. Well dare I say, we are all fools and ignorant! Walking into HMP Altcourse was like going back to my university days. The buildings, the footie ground, the canteen, the healthcare clinic, the tutorial rooms where they teach basic English to Level 3 and IT courses and “mini zoo” as I call it– all very well laid out and managed properly! Rigid checks were carried out by the friendly staff at the reception where we were given visitor’s IDs and then went through to meet our hosts Pete and David.

Welcome sign to HMP Altcourse managed by G4S

The initial visit was quiet nerve racking I must admit… walking into an alien place not knowing what to expect gave me cold feet. But once we met the staff and the small group of prisoners who were going to assist us with our project, we immediately felt at ease. They made us feel very welcome and their hospitality was extraordinary, which made our subsequent visits all very easy. We were spoilt! Not only with the amount of information but also with the food that they fed us!

The project was a radio program where we were given tasks to interview prisoners regarding legal related issues they have, and they wish to address. We had a couple of meetings with Pete, David and the very polite inmates and all the questions boiled down to five topics. We picked one topic each and carried out reliable research to deliver dependable information. We researched Family Law about father and child Shared Arrangements; Proceeds of Crime Act; Sex Offenders Register; Home Detention Curfew and the arguably most boring topic – Data Protection Act 2018.

Oh we also did a Desert Island List! Yes that’s right, we DID!

This opportunity provided by OU has given me, I must say, hand on heart, has changed my view of prison completely. Going in to speak to real people who have committed mistakes in their lives is not only a good experience but also an eye opener for me that I surely will take with me as I venture on not only with my legal career in the future but with me as a person.

Public legal education at HMP Altcourse: Part 2 by Kelly Thomas and Henry Lambert

Legal Eagle Radio Show Blog – By Kelly Thomas

As an Open University student studying LLB Law, I was given the opportunity to visit HMP Altcourse which is a cat B prison hosting around 1200 men, along with 4 other students and a tutor that I had never met. When I first arrived at Altcourse on that roasting hot June day, I didn’t anticipate, the effect that this journey that I was about to embark upon would have upon my life as both a law student and a person.  My fellow students, The Open University tutor, the inmates who we worked with and the staff at the prison, made this experience one that I will never forget, and the experience is a must for any law student.

The reason for our visit was to assist prisoners and answer any general legal questions that they might have. The 2 prisoners that we met who ran the radio show received these questions from the prison population, we then researched the questions and answered the questions on the in-house prison radio station.  The questions we received where questions based on Family Law, Home detention curfew, The Sex offenders Register, The Proceeds of Crime Act and current Data Protection Law.

HMP Altcourse struck me as a modern prison, it was the kind of prison that you see on the TV in American films and dramas. With large exercise yards, wide open spaces between buildings and lots of different programs available to develop the prisoners whilst inside.  The maximum amount for time that these lads stay at this prison is 4 years, with lifers moving around different prisons around the country whilst serving their sentences.  They can undertake courses in plastering, painting and decorating and joinery, they also undertake family courses, learning how to produce healthy food and learn parenting skills whilst in Prison.

Something that struck me lost for words, apart from the smell of the prison which sent me back to my school days! or the noise of the clunking of the keys in the locks and the clanging of the metal doors as you walk through them was the Art department. The sheer talent of these lads was amazing, the talent we saw was above and beyond anything that I have seen in any art gallery.

So, we met the radio broadcasting team, headed up by Dave who was a prison guard. The two prisoners we met were friendly and complete professionals in their field of radio presenting.  We received the questions following visit one.  On visit two we familiarized ourselves with the rules of the broadcasting room and planned the final visit when we would present our prepared answers to the prison population.  Teamwork assisted us in our presentations, hard work, professionalism and attention to detail aided in our successful presentation at the final visit.

I have thoroughly enjoyed working on this project. The skills I have learnt in this short period of time could not be taught in a classroom or instructed on an online tutorial.  The direct interaction with Prisoners at a vulnerable stage in their lives, working together with fellow students to achieve a common goal and being led by a tutor in a managerial role is experience that is a must for any law student.  This project has provided me with a first-hand insight into my achievable aim of becoming a solicitor.

Henry Lambert – HMP Altcourse visit

I had visited Liverpool a number of times; the usual sites for someone traveling through for work or to visit a friend. I had been to the cathedrals, The Philharmonic, and across the Mersey for a football match. This time was different. This time I was going to prison. With Liverpool Lime Street under construction my journey consisted of a train from London to Liverpool Parkways, then unto Liverpool Central, with another train out to the difficult to pronounce Fazakerley Station, and, finally, a half hour walk past the hospital and along a quiet industrial estate to reach the entrance of HMP Altcourse.

It was June, dry, and right at the height of a heatwave. I stood outside waiting to enter the prison with my new colleagues from the OU and our tutor. I had steeled myself for a different experience. One where hardened take-no-nonsense prison guards would be guiding a naive group of students through a rather grim environment. This expectation was dismissed within the first few minutes of our tour through the prison.

Having dispensed with contraband items (cigarettes, lighters, and cellphones) we were ushered through a set of double doors and then a series of locked gates. The various wings of Altcourse are named after features of the immediately adjoining racing grounds of Aintree. The wings are grouped around two spacious grass pitches and running tracks. The tour around the facilities, gave us a sense of the day-to-day life of the prison population as they endeavour to reintegrate with the outside community. Art, carpentry, IT skills, plastering, welding, beekeeping, and keeping birds of prey, were all on the agenda. The level of engagement by staff and inmates was impressive.

Our task was to help provide content for the prison radio service by researching answers to legal questions put to us by the inmates. Our hosts on the prison staff first contacted the mentors – the more senior prisoners on the wings. These mentors then queried the general prison population and a couple of weeks later a long list of intriguing questions were returned to us. The list was pruned and rationalized, and it came time to divide the topics and hit the books. The questions ranged from the workings of home detention curfew, and sexual offences, to the proceeds of crime act, family law, and data protection. Each of us prepared our topic, with the team meeting online to run through our talks and tighten them up before recording the final show.

This experience at Altcourse, working with both the staff and inmates who were producing a very high standard of radio programming and the team from the OU, has been entirely unique in my academic and professional life. It was fascinating to collaborate with such a diversity of personal and professional backgrounds. It was gratifying to be part of a project where it genuinely felt as if everyone participating came away with something valuable: the inmates running the radio program and the prison staff working on production, the general prison population that might benefit from the information presented, and the OU students being given this opportunity.

I know I won’t soon be forgetting my colleagues and that walk from Fazakerley (which I still can’t pronounce) to HMP Altcourse. It was my first experience seeing how the law operates in practice: with all sorts of people coming together to ask questions, try to find answers, and communicate them effectively.


Public legal education at HMP Altcourse: Part 1 by Joseph Beet and Paula Virlan

In this series of reflections, a number of Open University law students discuss their experiences delivering a legally focused radio programme which will be broadcast at HMP Altcourse. Five students visited the prison in June 2018 along with law lecturer Tamsin Morris.

Joseph Beet

I was one of the students from the Open University who was given the chance to deliver a legally focused radio programme to be broadcast at HMP Altcourse. Over three visits to the prison my colleagues and I discovered just what questions prisoners had regarding our legal system and how best to deliver that information to them.

During our visits to HMP Altcourse we spoke with prisoners who gave us an idea of what kind of questions may be asked of us. Together we narrowed down fields of law where we would be able to help, and to which they canvassed the larger prison population for questions. We were also showed around the prison and given a unique insight as to what life is like, and the efforts prisoners go to in order to improve themselves through rehabilitation and work experiences. We really didn’t expect bee keeping and falconry to be a part of prison life! However, it was remarkable the effect participating in these activities, and running the radio station itself, had on people. The pride they took in their work was self evident, and it showed in their results (the bee honey tasted great!).

Once we canvassed enough questions however, it was down to business for us. We divided the questions we had been asked that we were able to cover into the following broad categories; Family Law, Sexual Offences, Home Detention Curfew, GDPR and Proceed of Crime. We then applied the knowledge and skills obtained throughout our studies with the Open University in order to research the correct legal positions and answer the questions the prisoners had. Unlike legal research for university assignments, or written reports however, this time there was a twist. The information and answers we had researched and found would have to be delivered to the prison population via radio show! Not only did we have to get the information, but our presentation skills would be put to the test as we would interviewed on air with the show broadcast for everyone to hear. We had to ensure our presentations flowed naturally in conversation, and were interesting and engaging. Not an easy task for complex law, or when nervous!

Ultimately on the day of the recording, all nervousness washed away. The hospitality of our hosts, their professionalism, and friendly approach, immediately put us at ease, and we were able to deliver our interviews and cover the questions the prisoners had about law. Afterwards we were able to reflect on the skills the project had instilled in use. Not only were our research skills put to the test, were able to apply them in a practical environment and greatly enhance or presentation and media skills. We all walked away with a greater understanding, and respect, for our prison system and those who work in it, and go through it.

I definitely would like to thank the staff and prisoners at HMP Altcourse, as well as the OU, for this opportunity and everything it has taught me.

Altcourse and the birth of the OU Legal Eagles Team

by Paula Virlan

I went to prison at the end of June beginning of July 2018, in Liverpool. I travelled there by plane, car, coach and taxi. I did not commit a crime. I was taking part in a project developed by the Open University.

I will describe the first visit as a reconnaissance mission, but not in a military sense – quite the opposite. I had the pleasure to meet the team I was going to work with (Kelly, Sharon, Joseph, Henry, and our supervisor Tamsin), two prison officers (Peter and David) and two of the most well-behaved and polite inmates. We discussed the types of skills and jobs available to prisoners. They vary from manual labour such as carpentry, to English, mathematics, arts, music and many others – including the possibility of taking certain university courses with the OU. I was impressed by the variety of skills and opportunities offered by Altcourse and staff’s commitment to help and encourage prisoners to follow a different path in life.

Our aim and purpose there – to answer prisoners’ questions about the law. We must put our best skills at work to provide comprehensive, useful and interesting answers. I was surprised to find out our answers will be recorded and played on the prison’s own radio station. David proposed we record a Desert Island Disc show, during our second visit, I gladly accepted.

Two weeks later I arrive earlier, some of us took on Peter’s offer – to see some of the rehabilitation programs in action. The classes are due to end soon but just before they do Paul takes me in the English class. I introduce myself and say that I’m originally from Bucharest, Romania. The teacher (whose name I’ve shamefully forgot) has visited Romania on a few occasions and loved it. I don’t hear that very often so I’m glad to listen. Next, I turn my attention to the prisoners. I want to find out their questions about the law, but they are awkwardly (and surprisingly) shy, so they don’t really speak out. I’m told they’ll write them down and give us all a list by the end of the day.

We take a break, Peter and David are great hosts throughout our visits and their hospitality is remarkable.

It’s time to record our Desert Island Discs programme. I feel we’re all getting a bit nervous, but it is a great experience and by the end of it we’re more relaxed. We decide our law programme will be called ‘The Legal Eagles’. Before we leave we are given the list of law related questions.

17TH of July is our last visit. We’re all prepared, and we practiced our work online with Tamsin. We are covering subjects such as Home Detention Curfew, Data Protection Act, Family Law, Proceeds of Crime and Sexual Offences. Whilst listening to everyone’s answers I realise that the skills we’ve all gained through our legal studies are settling well within each and everyone of us. I’m smiling. I think we’ve all come a long way and I’m proud of all of us.

On my way home I get a weird feeling. I truly enjoyed this experience, but it has come to an end. I would like to thank the OU for this opportunity, members of staff from HMP Altcourse, to my colleagues, and Tamsin.

The Prosecutors – Consulting on Series 2 and the Criminal Law Principle of Conspiracy

In this post, Dr Simon Lavis reflects on his experience working on Series 2 of The Prosecutors and takes a closer look at conspiracy in the criminal law.

Series 2 of The Prosecutors aired on BBC2 last Thursday 2nd August and continues this coming Thursday. The programme follows the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as it takes complex criminal cases from charge through to trial. It is a BBC/Open University co-production and I was engaged on Series 2 as the OU’s academic consultant for the programme. I became involved in June 2017, joining other OU colleagues already involved with the programme, and by that point the production company had already been working on Series 2 for months so altogether it was nearly two years from the start of the project to broadcasting.

My role on this co-production has involved three main tasks. As the initial decisions about which cases to follow had already been made, the first task is reviewing and providing feedback on the edits of the programmes. The second task is to consider how we might use some of the video from the series to enhance the learning on the OU modules. The third task is preparing some of the materials that go on the OpenLearn website, to accompany the series. These allow interested viewers to find out more about the relevant areas of law and criminal justice and complete some interactive activities. For this series, I prepared a short article about new technologies and the criminal law, and an interactive quiz asking viewers to follow a scenario and decide whether they would prosecute a modern slavery case based on the evidence available.

This is my first academic consultant role for television and it has been very enjoyable meeting the production team, seeing how things work in production, and thinking about how to make the accompanying materials engaging and informative. The series itself gives a really good sense of how the CPS goes about its business, especially in complex cases that take months if not years to prosecute, and involve many perpetrators operating across the country. I do not think many people know a lot about how the CPS actually works and the sorts of issues and decisions it has to tackle, so hopefully The Prosecutors can help to improve our understanding of the service.

Series 2 also covers some interesting areas of criminal law in England and Wales. The one I want to focus on briefly here is the little understood criminal law principle of conspiracy. Conspiracy is an example of an inchoate offence, which means an incomplete offence: steps have been taken towards an act that is a crime, but the criminal act has not been completed. The criminal law is generally interested in people who have committed criminal acts with a guilty state of mind, but it is also sometimes interested in people planning to commit criminal acts if enough steps have been taken – conspiracy is an example of this.

A conspiracy is basically an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime, but just conspiring to do anything is (obviously) not an offence; you have to conspire to do something criminal. It is mainly criminalised by section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which requires the following:

  • a person agrees with any other person(s)
  • to pursue a course of conduct, which
  • if the agreement is carried out as intended will either:
    • involve a criminal offence being committed; or
    • would involve an offence being committed if not for facts existing that happen to make the commission of the offence impossible.

This is a case of where it does not take much to be drawn into committing a criminal offence; just by agreeing something with someone else, even if you do not actually go on to do anything. Being part of a conspiracy can also mean that you will be punished more harshly than you would otherwise be for actually carrying out the same offence on your own. You can see examples of this in action in The Prosecutors.



A year as a litigant in person – and why I’ll never be one again: Part II


Dr Stephanie Pywell continues her reflection on the emotional impact of navigating the court system as a litigant in person. 

At the beginning of my previous post, I mentioned my belief that most small claims are settled by mediation, which is a form of alternative dispute resolution. Each party puts their case to a mediator, who usually has legal training, and the mediator relays that case to the other party. It seemed obvious that this was how my case should end, because the company and I both ticked the box indicating that we thought the case was suitable for referral to the Small Claims Mediation Service. The following sentence immediately followed the box: ‘Please give your contact details below – if all parties agree to mediation your details will be passed to the small claims mediation team who will contact you to arrange an appointment’.  This gave me an underlying confidence that, although the case was causing me a huge amount of stress, it would never actually get to court, and my only loss – apart from sleep and hair – would be £30.

In September, I queried why I had received no communication from the Small Claims Mediation Service; the reply was that ‘information can be found on the internet.’ I discovered that litigants must email the Small Claims Mediation Service to request appointments, and that appointments cannot be moved because of timetabling constraints. I listed the dates on which I would not be available, and then felt anxious every time I arranged anything, in case there was a clash of dates. I need not have worried: I never received a mediation appointment.

As there had been no change to the 6 November deadline by which I had to provide all my documents to the court, and pay the £80 fee, my husband and I spent most of the last Sunday in October writing detailed witness statements. My statement included references to 20 other documents, and I spent three evenings printing and collating three folders of all the documentation. On Friday 3 November, my husband went to the local court to deliver two folders of documents and £80 cash. There was no system for acknowledging receipt – he was told to put everything in ‘the postbox on Level 5’, and he returned home with no proof that he had ever visited the court. I hardly slept for the whole weekend, and constantly thought about the injustice that I assumed would ensue if – as seemed very likely – HMCTS mislaid the cash, the folders, or both. I discovered on Thursday 9 November that everything had been safely received, and that the company had missed the deadline for submitting its documents, so I finally felt confident that I would win.

The company’s solicitor consistently treated me with contempt. He acknowledged only one of my nine emails and, on 13 December, he offered me £352.50 ‘in full and final settlement’. I worked out my costs, including the trial fee, and responded that I would settle for £811.07 in my bank account by 5:00 pm on 20 December, but that I was content to go to court if the company wished to do so. I received no reply.

At 9:53 am on 21 December, the solicitor emailed to state that £705 had been paid into my account, that I was not entitled to anything else, that the case was at an end, and that ‘we have notified the court’. I felt bewildered and panic-stricken, since I did not believe that a defendant’s solicitor could end a case after paying a sum less than the claimant had specified. I was still shaking half-an-hour later, when I received an email from HMCTS stating that the hearing, which was scheduled for 10:00 am the following day, had been transferred to a court over 20 miles away. I suspected that the solicitor was trying to trick me out of not attending the hearing, so that the court would decide in the company’s favour.

My repeated calls to the solicitor’s mobile phone and his firm’s landline were not answered, so, at 4:00 pm – just one business hour before the hearing – feeling desperate, and with no idea what to do, I phoned HMCTS. I explained that I feared I could be penalised for non-attendance at the hearing, and I was told that I had the option of going to court or cancelling, but HMCTS could not tell me whether the case had been cancelled by the defendant. In something close to physical panic, and feeling under huge pressure, I cancelled, because I was afraid that a judge would not be sympathetic to my wasting the court’s time for £80 on the last working day before Christmas.

The next morning, I spoke to one of the solicitor’s firm’s partners on the phone. He was startlingly rude, and repeatedly interrupted me with exclamations including ‘Let me ask the questions!’ and ‘It’s Christmas!’. Twenty-four hours later, he sent me an email, falsely alleging that I had ‘ranted’ on the phone, stating that the solicitor had ‘confirmed that the case was settled’, and ending: ‘I would now prefer to enjoy my holiday.’

I was convinced that the solicitor and partner had breached the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Code of Conduct, so I emailed the SRA on 30 December. The complaints in my first two emails were summarily dismissed, but I persisted in respect of the solicitor; I had insufficient evidence against the partner. An email that I sent on 20 February elicited a response that the SRA would make some enquiries with the firm. On 12 April, the SRA’s letter conceded that the solicitor’s email telling me that the case was over ‘could have been clarified further to avoid uncertainty’. The letter also stated that the SRA had ‘advised [the solicitor] that he may wish to ensure his communications are qualified in full when dealing with litigants in person’. The solicitor had told the SRA that he had ‘miscalculated’ the amount due to me – which I had clearly set out in the only email that had included the bank details that he had used – and that his client would repay the £80 if I could prove that I had paid it. I responded to the SRA, pointing out a number of inconsistencies in the solicitor’s alleged statements. The initial response was, worryingly, a letter to another complainant. I subsequently received my own letter, which brusquely dismissed my outstanding questions.

I abandoned the unequal struggle, and formally requested a refund of the £80. I was unsurprised that the solicitor did not acknowledge my email, but the money was paid into my account on 24 May, 50 weeks after I had started the Money Claim Online. It had been one of the longest periods of low-level stress that I have ever experienced, and I intend never to put myself through such an ordeal again.

The only unusual thing about this case was that, unlike most LiPs, I am highly educated, have a good awareness of the law, family support, financial security and a well-equipped home office. I was fighting for something that I could afford to lose; many LiPs are fighting for things that really matter, such as their livelihoods, their homes or access to their children. I can only imagine the stress that they must feel when they open the envelopes containing – or not containing – repetitive, incomprehensible and error-strewn communications from HMCTS, or receive patronising and hostile emails from lawyers. I hope that, by recounting my humiliating experience, I may help to improve the experience of future LiPs.