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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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

In Part I of this guest post Dr Stephanie Pywell reflects on her experience as a litigant in person. The insights she offers will be particularly useful to OU students working on public-facing Open Justice projects such as the advice clinic, Citizens Advice and the Personal Support Unit. 

Part I

This is the first of two posts reflecting on a year during which I was a user of the civil court system in England and Wales, and the emotional effects of my experience.  I have an LLB and a PhD in law, and I write about the English legal system, so I knew (or thought I knew) that the procedures for small claims – those for less than £10,000 – are simple, and that cases are resolved quickly. I also believed that most small claims are settled by alternative dispute resolution – probably, in this case, mediation – rather than actually going to court. This experience has taught me that there is a huge gulf between academic theory and reality.

I knew that I had a strong case. On 1 February 2017, my husband and I had placed an order marked ‘URGENT: 6–8 weeks’ for a composite front door fixed within a uPVC arch. 15 weeks later, a fitter had arrived with an arch that did not fit our house, and could not be adjusted. The company had therefore not fulfilled its obligations under the contract, and we were entitled to a refund of our £645 deposit. After three phone messages and three signed-for letters, the company’s managing director (MD) had failed to contact us to discuss the refund. On 6 June, in accordance with the warning in our third letter, we started a legal claim to recover the money.

My confidence that I could handle this matter was reinforced by the ease of starting a Money Claim Online – the form was short and simple. Its only disconcerting feature was that there was no space for a second name so, although my husband and I had jointly entered the contract, only one of us could be formally identified as the claimant. I have more legal knowledge than he does, and I do virtually all our household admin, so there was no debate. Less than half-an-hour later, I had become a litigant in person (LiP), because I had not instructed a solicitor or Chartered Legal Executive to pursue the claim on my behalf.

LiPs are rapidly increasing in number – due largely to the £350 million reduction in the civil Legal Aid budget in 2013 – but very little research has been done into their experiences. Lord Dyson, a former Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice, recognised this trend; he wrote in 2012, in his Foreword to A Handbook for Litigants in Person:

Access to justice is a right not a privilege… Over the last ten years there has however been an increase in the number of individuals who have, for various reasons, pursued and defended claims on their own behalf: they have been and are litigants in person (or self-represented litigants). It is anticipated that in the years to come the number of litigants in person will increase and perhaps will do so sharply.

Most of the scant academic literature focusses on LiPs’ effect on the civil justice system, rather than the civil justice system’s effect on LiPs, and this post is an attempt at redressing that imbalance.

On 8 June, the MD telephoned. He told my husband that the door and arch had been scrapped, then offered either a refund of our £645 deposit, or £300 off the total cost. My husband said we also wanted the £60 claim fee, since it was the claim had prompted the MD to contact us. The MD said ‘I’m not paying that’, so my husband said that he would have to discuss the matter with me. As we had lost all confidence in the company and the MD, and there was no door and arch that fitted our house, we wrote to the MD requesting a refund of £705.

I received my first envelope from HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) on 22 June.

A striking feature of this, and much of the subsequent, correspondence was the number of errors that it contained. As well as mistakes in spelling, punctuation, Spurious Capital Letters and grammar, there were duplicated letters in the same post, the inclusion of a long-outdated 0844 telephone number for a court, and the omission of some important enclosures. The most significant omission was the response pack that I was instructed to return because the company decided to sue me by counterclaiming for £2,932.50, allegedly because my husband and I had not allowed them to return to our home to fit the (non-existent, non-adjustable) ‘adjusted arch’. My first phone call to HMCTS elicited a promise that the pack would be sent; eight days later, scared that my (unspecified but limited) time to reply was running out, I rang again, and was told that I could simply print my response on plain paper.

Much of the correspondence would not have been accessible or comprehensible to someone without at least a rudimentary knowledge of legal procedure. Documents had titles including: ‘Notice that Acknowledgment of Service has been filed’, ‘Defence and Counterclaim (specified amount)’ and ‘Notice of Allocation to the Small Claims Track (Hearing)’. Although some of the forms were written in plain English, some seemed designed to confuse naïve readers. Someone who knows nothing about the law has to remember that the person who starts the claim is the claimant, and the person against whom the claim is made is the defendant, so they would find these sentences (on the Notice of Transfer of Proceedings) baffling:

As you will be responding as the defendant to the counterclaim, please read and complete the response forms listing yourself as the defendant. This does not apply to the Directions Questionnaire, where you should still list yourself as the claimant.

My defence to the counterclaim was checked by a friend who is a barrister, and his first reaction was that I had been incorrect to refer to myself as ‘the defendant’. If even practising lawyers can be confused by the terminology, there is little hope that LiPs will master it.

I encountered some examples of incompetence in basic clerical matters, too. HMCTS lost my Directions Questionnaire and requested another copy of it, but they did not send me a replacement form or instructions about how to download one. Fortunately, I had a scanned copy. After I had printed and forwarded another copy, I received notice that the hearing was scheduled for Monday 4 December, a date on which the twice-sent Directions Questionnaire clearly stated that I would not be available. The hearing was re-scheduled for Friday 22 December, but HMCTS did not change the deadline of 6 November for the submission of detailed documents, and the payment of an £80 trial fee, to the court.

I felt as though I had three opponents: the company and its non-responsive MD, the company’s unhelpful solicitor (who ignored my four offers to split the claim fee and settle immediately for £675), and HMCTS, which I no longer trusted to do anything properly. I spent much of the time feeling very stressed and anxious, I dreaded the arrival of every day’s post, and I was nervous every time I opened my email inbox. I lost a huge amount of sleep, my stomach lurched every time I heard any court-related words (which is very often, given that I’m a legal academic), and my hair started to fall out. I told only two family members and four very close friends what was going on, because I was afraid that I would cry if I had to recount the story to anyone else.

Everything that I have described so far happened before 11 October 2017; I had no idea how much longer things could – and would – last …

 

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An OU law student’s journey into government

We are pleased to be able to publish a guest post ‘Lawyers in Government’ by James Coupe.

James is a former OU law student and offers some comments on his experience studying law with the OU to give some additional background to his article.

Before studying with the Open University, I was working as a technical author for a software firm, which involved writing a lot of documentation for telecoms products and networking protocol stacks.  I already had a degree and was enjoying my job, but was itching to do something to keep my brain going.  I wasn’t, initially, looking at switching career. 

 

I was a bit unsure on exactly what I wanted to study – politics and international relations were other subjects I was thinking of – but after doing some casual reading around, I settled on law.  I had looked at some other universities too for part-time/evening study but the flexibility of the OU was a key factor in my decision.  In particular, I was working full-time and didn’t want to stop or reduce my hours.  I dipped my toe in the water with the OU module W100, which was similar to the current W101 module.  Initially, I wasn’t sure if distance learning would be for me, but found the motivation of TMA deadlines kept me on the straight and narrow.  I signed up for the next module, and then the next…  It was only towards the end of my third year (of five, for me) that I really started thinking seriously about switching career. 

 

After finishing my degree with the OU, I took a couple of years off before starting the LPC with the University of Law.  I studied part-time over two years at weekends, at the London Bloomsbury campus.  Study weekends were held every 2-3 weeks, with reading and online materials to work through in between, although some of the formal assessments fell on weekdays.  That I could fit this around my job was an important factor for me as I was still working full-time.”

LAWYERS IN GOVERNMENT

 What does the average day in the life of a Government Legal Department (GLD) trainee look like?  Honestly, it changes all the time, and I know the experiences I’ve had are different from those of my fellow trainees.  The teams we work with from Government departments and the wider Civil Service are large and diverse, with lots of different things going on all the time.

So, what sorts of days have I had?  Some are very varied – one day in a litigation seat, I went to the Court of Appeal, for an hour or so in the morning, to listen to a permission hearing for a colleague. I then headed back to the office and briefed her on the outcome, including an unusual ex tempore judgment given there and then. After which I spent a couple of hours redacting some documents needed for another case, proof-read a witness statement for a colleague in a third case, and spent some time doing some research into the likely range of damages (if a claimant was successful) in a fourth.  In a different seat on advisory matters, I spent a couple of days digging through Parliamentary debates, whitepapers and public statements to try to understand the motivations for a particular section of an Act of Parliament from a couple of decades ago which was, I promise, much more interesting than it might sound, with some fascinating nuances.  Most days are somewhere in between the two.  Work-life balance is extremely important to GLD.  Yes, you’ll probably be quite busy, and yes, you’ll have some tight deadlines from time to time, but you won’t be expected to work round the clock.  I can personally attest that senior lawyers will chase you out of the building if they see you working too late.  It’s often possible to arrange a ‘family friendly’ working day e.g. starting and leaving early so that you can pick up your children from nursery at the end of the day, while your partner drops them off in the morning.

 

Your supervisors and colleagues will be keen to ensure that you get a good mix of work.  A little admin work is inevitable!  Preparing trial bundles is a key task in litigation, and for cases you’re working on you’ll very often be best placed to know what documents you have, what information they provide, and how you think they should be arranged.  A well-prepared bundle can make everyone’s job at a tribunal much smoother.  However, each of your supervisors will be keen to involve you in substantial work from day one – drafting statements of case, advising clients on the merits of their litigation, researching information, drafting some of the simpler parts of a statutory instrument, advising your client on potential legal risks around their proposed policies, and a great many other things.

 

Who do you work with?  GLD provides legal services to most of government, so you can find yourself working with a very wide variety of departments – the Home Office; Treasury; Education; Transport; International Trade; Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy; Housing, Communities, and Local Government; and many others. Your training is structured around four different seats of six months each.  You start with two litigation seats such as commercial disputes, employment litigation, defending judicial reviews etc., and then do two “advisory” seats.  During each of your advisory seats you can expect to be co-located with your client department. You’ll be asked for your preferences for the advisory seats before they’re allocated and GLD will try hard to match people up to the departments they want to go to, subject to the spaces available.  Barristers follow the same route as solicitors (although pupillage technically lasts only one year) but with the second litigation seat spent in a set of chambers.

 

There is lots of excellent training to help you develop.  Some of it is on themes that matter a lot to government generally – such as the processes behind creating statutory instruments, what powers ministers have, or the public sector equality duty – but also on matters particular to the teams you’re working with.  Many LPC courses don’t include much by way of public law, and some of the topics you might have covered on your LPC/ BPTC have additional quirks when working within government.  For example, the way employment law works is slightly different for Crown servants and the armed forces, and the duty of candour is different from ordinary disclosure rules in litigation.

 

Working in GLD can be a bit different to the private sector.  As well as being a lawyer with professional obligations, you’re also a civil servant with the obligations that brings, particularly around objectivity and political impartiality.  Some things you work on might have wider implications for setting precedents, so they may have different implications than if you were advising a private sector client.  A lot of advice is based around assessing the legal risks on implementing particular policy ideas.  However, like your friends in the private sector, the skills of problem solving and commercial awareness are just as valuable – your colleagues developing a policy may have a suggestion that is legally risky or impractical as it stands, but where you can work with them to develop a more robust solution that still meets their goals.  If you’re coming from another career, any experience you have of time management, working with clients, and managing expectations will stand you in good stead.  Being comfortable with online tools like Lexis, Westlaw and Practical Law is helpful too.

 

The application process

 

The application process is all about your ability to pass the online competency based assessments.  The precise details may change from year to year, so do check the information on the website.  When I did it, the application form included a situational judgment test, and later steps included timed online verbal reasoning and critical reasoning/Watson Glaser-style tests.  Do some practice tests if you can, particularly to be comfortable with answering questions in the time – don’t get distracted by one tricky question and find yourself with 30 seconds to answer the last five.  Some other potential employers in the private sector use very similar tests.  If you get through these tests, you’re invited to a half-day assessment centre. The assessment centres usually run on a range of dates in mid-late August.  There was also a webinar to explain the assessment centre to us, and to allow us to ask questions.

 

My assessment centre started with a written task based on a bundle of materials provided on the day. The materials set out a short legal problem, which had a bit of a public law flavour, on which you were asked to give your views (and reasoning for these), to a supervisor or policy colleague.   The actual legislation involved was fictional, so it was new to all of us (and no credit was given for prior legal knowledge).  Time was pretty tight, and I was typing frantically to the end.

 

After a short break, I had a follow-up face-to-face interview where I was asked about my written answer, before moving on to being asked to give examples of how I had previously demonstrated the competencies required for the role. The competencies (which are listed on the www.gov.uk/gls website) are drawn from the Civil Service Competency Framework. It is recommended that you keep the STAR approach in mind when answering the interviewers’ questions (i.e. when giving an example explain the Situation, Task, Action and Result).  It’s worth knowing that the interviewers – two lawyers, and an independent chair – don’t know your academic background when interviewing you, nor is this a factor when decisions are made on who to offer places to.  GLD genuinely wants the best people they can find, regardless of which schools or universities they attended, or their A level grades.  When they analyse the results afterwards, offers usually go to people from a diverse spread of universities, with mature students and career switchers in the mix too.

 

Finally, I would add that it is not only GLD which recruits legal trainees. Each year, other government departments such as HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) and NCA (the National Crime Agency) also tend to offer trainee places through the same legal trainee recruitment process. In 2018, I understand that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will also be joining in. If you reach the final stage of the recruitment process and are invited to the assessment centre, you will be given an opportunity to express a preference for a particular department.  This preference will be taken account of, where possible, when the trainee places are allocated.

 

The application process for the 2018 Government Legal Trainee Scheme will open on 2 July 2018.

 

Around 50 legal trainee places (training contracts and pupillages) will be available, primarily for those looking to start a training contract/pupillage in September 2020. There are also likely to be a small number of trainee places available for those ready to start sooner.

 

For further details, please visit: www.gov.uk/gls

 

 

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On public legal education, pro-bono and spas

Today’s post is by final year OU law students Lidia Dancu, Hannah Dowling, Ayesha Khurshid and Samina Nasir and reflects on their contribution to Open Justice Streetlaw worskhops in Scotland and Newcastle during March and April 2018.

What is the best test of your understanding of the law, if not the ability to explain its practical application to a roomful of teenagers?  Not just a roomful but an assembly kind of roomful – all of them perhaps more excited at the prospect of being able to skip Maths than a meeting with some wannabe lawyers.

For final year students at the Open University, most of whom carry the burden of other careers, work, families, children and dealing with all the challenges which come with the territory of studying (often later in life, sometimes the second time round), having to ‘go out in the field’ can sometimes be not only an onerous, but also a daunting proposition.  But one, which once reflected upon, brings with it not only increased learning and an array of new-found legal skills, the satisfaction of having met those challenges head-on and having overcome them, but also the potential to step into a renewed position of increased confidence and authority.

And so it was that we somehow shakily committed to participation in the Open Justice’s public legal education exercise in what turned out to be a series of four sessions of presentations running at schools in Scotland and the north of England, over the course of one week.  The hours spent trying to connect with one another over the internet, the phone and various communication applications, as well as planning carried out in tutorials and a number of meetings, will remain countless. It will suffice to say that there were many of those hours and that frustration characterised a large percentage of it.  We joked that at the end of this crazy exercise they imposed on us that the Open Justice team must send us to a spa, having committed themselves (rather foolishly for a department teaching practical law) to giving us ‘any support we needed’ and failing to attach any limitations to their liability.

As “The Week” drew nearer, we decided that meeting in person, for those of use who could manage it, was highly necessary in order to get to know one another and identify our strengths and weaknesses.  That meeting was invaluable and set the tone for a fantastically successful week of presentations, where we somehow succeeded in giving the impression that we were a coherent team with all the confidence and professionalism necessary to authoritatively speak to young people on legal matters.

In those moments before the first presentation we were somehow propelled into functioning as a team, encouraging and supporting each other and quickly stepping in for one another when necessary.  Each session was different and we were able to go from strength to strength by discussing what was going well or less well and, adjusting and improving, which all culminated in an excellent final session at the end of that week.  We managed to deliver a smooth and engaging experience for the students, the staff, and for one another, and in the breathing spaces we found real enjoyment of the task at hand.  We learned a huge amount about the topics we presented on, the focus allowing us to look into areas which we might not have otherwise had the opportunity to explore.  Nervousness turned to confidence in a matter of minutes.  We were lucky to work with people who turned every challenge (like being presented with a hall full of fidgety teens, or a room of 8 unresponsive ones) into an opportunity to take control, to engage and to inspire, or even rule the roost where necessary!

Reflecting on it now we can safely say that a few specific things that we did, made our week of presentations into a success story.  If we were to list them here, it would go something like this:

  1. Plan for everything.  You wouldn’t think it, but even ‘plan D’ often comes in really handy.  Have variations on every interactive sessions for different levels of interest and engagement.  Remember that proper planning and preparation prevents pathetically poor performance.
  2. Communicate with your team members and your tutor who is there to help and support (we were lucky there too, here’s to great tutors who become more like friends – yes, we mean you, GM!).  From as simple as exchanging contact details, to keeping people posted about your progress and areas you need help with or which you are unable to manage.  Communicate with your students, engage them and let them engage you. Be open!
  3. Participate in the group work as much as you can.  Life goes on for us all, pulling us in all sorts of directions, but what you get out of anything, is directly proportional to what you put in.  Take part!
  4. Listen actively to what others have to say to you.  Your quietest teammate may have the most brilliant idea, or your own seemingly genius scheme could fall flat on its face in the classroom.  Listen to the student’s questions as they are learning too; from them stems your own deepest learning.  Be all ears!
  5. Take on board the experiences which others bring to the table.  Put everything together to create a combined, more valuable piece of work.  Own it, but don’t monopolise it.  You are all in this together.

There would be much more advice to give from a place of new-found expertise but it would suffice to say that making any delivery fun, engaging and inspirational will win over pretty much any audience.  Oh, and litter any presentation with the occasional (educational, of course) YouTube video for those rare moments of respite and restorative pin-drop silence!

At the end of it all, we emerged rather different people from the experience than the way we entered it: more confident, proudly sporting the badges of public speaking, team work, the capacity to think on our feet and to respond to the ground shifting in real-time under our feet.  We gained the ability to impart our legal knowledge and to demystify the law – in essence, to be a small part of the movement which attempts to improve social justice outcomes for the public.  We also got to test and adjust our professional identity and to put into play our own legal values and ethics in a real life situation by sharing what we gained from our legal education and life experiences with the community at large.

Some of us discovered a love of mentoring, some confronted and overcame our fears and some found our voices… standing on stages and shouting at the young and restless, does that to you.

But beyond our new way with the law and our satisfaction of a job done well, we found at the end of that week that in the frustrating process of trying to come together from different parts of the country, from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, different ages and interests, we had somehow become a real team almost despite ourselves.  Pro-bono did not just bring us together for the benefit of the greater good of the community, but also for our own.  New-found respect replaced hesitancy and wariness and we are now finally and determinedly planning that day out at a spa.

The only thing which remains to be tested, is our advocacy skills: will we be able to successfully argue for obtaining an all-expense paid day from a law department abundant in provision of pro-bono activities, but clearly lacking in its ability to qualify, limit and restrict their offers of support to students, or will they hit back with tomes of small print which will have cleverly hidden legal provisos to such ambitious claims that we all signed without reading?  It remains to be seen.   Open Justice team, the ball is in your court!

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