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 …

 

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

 

 

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!

Public legal education at HMP Oakwood

In this series of blog posts, Paul Dale, an Associate Lecturer at The Open University, final year law students Jon Stitcher, Lucy Tomlinson and Sean Harker, and  ‘prisoner mentor’, Malcolm, reflect on their experiences of teaching public legal education in Her Majesty’s Prison Oakwood.

From left to right – Tammia, St Giles Trust; Paul, OU Associate Lecturer; and final year students, Jon, Lucy and Sean

Paul

I’m Paul, the academic lead for the Open Justice project at HMP Oakwood in Wolverhampton; a joint venture with the St Giles Trust. Over the course of March and April, I was delighted to lead three final year law students to present legal education at Oakwood. The scheme is very much in its infancy, so our remit was to have an initial meeting with St Giles ‘prisoner mentors’ to discover any general legal issues that our students could research and present findings on. Three students were chosen out of some thirty applicants. Our first prison visit in March was a real eye opener for students. We met Steve and Tammia, from the St Giles Trust, who gave the students a tour of the prison. We were able to see inside the wings and meet prisoners, one of whom offered to show us his cell. Any hesitations or stereotypical views the students had of prisoners were soon dissipated. We then had a more formal meeting with six ‘prisoner mentors’. These were guys who were on longer term sentences and assisted others within the prison not only for rehabilitation purposes, but with day to day life. They were a very positive bunch of guys and enjoyed engaging with the wider community – two were OU graduates who had studied in prison! They identified nine issues for us to research, with a deeper concentration on joint enterprise, indeterminate sentences, the destruction of Crown Court transcripts and racial bias in sentencing. The meeting went well, and we stayed behind afterwards for coffee and a chat. On our second meeting we presented some initial findings and were also guided by their own research. Our third meeting was the presentation of our research and we gave them a folder of our findings. Overall, we established a good rapport with these guys, on all of our meetings we stayed behind for a more informal chat. The students were able to research new areas of law, but now from a more practical point of view instead a purely academic one. The prisoner mentors were already very knowledgeable on the law and these issues, and though they knew many of the fundamental issues involved, we were able to provide some nuanced views and introduce new lines of research for them to follow. Our remit was not to give legal advice, but to point them in directions for further legal research. It was a privilege to be given the chance to be able to meet people who had been directly affected by the legal issues that have been studied on the LLB. For instance, a number of them were convicted under old ‘joint enterprise’ rules that have been changed in the recent Supreme Court case of R v Jogee (2016). Lord Neuberger held in this case that previous court decisions ‘had taken a wrong turn’ for some thirty years in their application of joint enterprise. So, now meeting offenders who had been subject to this misapplication of law brings knowledge learned from studies to whole new level. Additionally, one of the prisoner mentors, Malcolm (an OU graduate who has authored a blog post here) was a party on the prisoner voting cases that have been back and forth in the Supreme Court and ECtHR. It was informative, for both the students and myself, to get an understanding of practical application of the legal issues that we have researched. If there is one thing that I will take away from the project, on a more personal level, it was the realisation that these guys were something more than their label. It is easy to categorise offenders based on their crimes, and label them because of a serious crime that they have committed. However, I got a sense of the individual behind their crime and subsequent label; they were a delight to meet, all had very positive attitudes to life in general, relished in their own personal development and had hope for their future. I do not think that I have met such a positive group of people and I feel privileged to have been part of the Open Justice project. As an added bonus and a direct result of the project, one of the students has a potential opportunity of working with offenders through the St Giles Trust in the future. Though the project is in its infancy, we can hopefully take it forward in years to come so that more students can gain benefit on both a professional and personal level. I’d like to thank HMP Oakwood for their support in the project, Tammia and Steve from the St Giles Trust for their organisation and enthusiastic approach, Jon, Lucy and Sean for their hard work and professionalism in their legal research and the St Giles Trust ‘prisoner mentors’ for their welcome and hospitality. Everyone worked together to create what turned in to worthwhile project.

Jon

Today I have finished my research project with the St Giles Trust at HMP Oakwood working with Prisoners. It has been an incredibly eye-opening experience. I went into this project with an archaic opinion of what prison life would be like. I was expecting it to be more like the TV show Porridge or the film The Shawshank Redemption. The reality is vastly different. Yes, we were working with the highly trusted prisoners, men who’d used their time in prison to great effect. They’d taken rehabilitation courses, they’d educated themselves, but more than that, they were educating and mentoring other prisoners. My first moments inside the prison I was quite apprehensive, we were taken on to a prison block where the prisoners were wandering around, quite freely and I hadn’t noticed any guards. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that I was perfectly safe and when interacting with the prisoners whom we were there to assist, I often didn’t realise they were prisoners but thought they were St Giles staff members. We chatted with these men, they told us their issues and we went away and we researched these issues. The whole time I was doing this, I very selfishly was thinking how good this would look on my CV. By the last meeting with the prisoners I’d come to realise how awful that was of me. When we finished our work, we left the prison to carry on with our lives, our degrees, our futures. For some of the people we were helping the future is so uncertain. They will remain in prison, some on indeterminate sentences and as much as I wanted to give them good news, unfortunately the outlook is quite bleak. I have taken so many positives out of this experience. On a purely selfish note, I have enhanced my CV and gained valuable experience in understanding how life in a prison works. But, I also feel like I have contributed to helping these men by taking the time to research issues of huge importance to them. But they have changed me, my views on prisoners and prison life are now much higher. I no longer think that we should be locking people up and throwing away the key but that prison should be a fully integrated rehabilitation programme working towards re-integrating these people back into society. I want to thank the Open University for selecting me for this project, for the St Giles Trust for running this pilot scheme and for working so closely with us, but mostly I want to thank the prisoners I was helping. They have made me sit up and think about the world and reconsider my own future in law. But also to reconsider my future as a person as my outlook on certain things has now changed forever. This was such an enriching experience and one that could not possibly be achieved through writing an essay.

Malcolm – HMP Oakwood – St Giles Trust ‘prisoner mentor’ (and OU graduate)

Over the last six weeks the Open University visited Oakwood in the form of a lecturer and three diligent students from their Law facility. A group of us were invited by our IAG (Information Advice and Guidance) Tutor and St Giles partner, to meet the students and pose questions of law or special interests. This was not only a novel way to have legal questions answered but an opportunity to engage with students form the community and an OU lecturer who turned out to be extremely pleasant and very knowledgeable. As a group we decided to task the students with 4 lines of enquiry these being issues that we found of interest either because they affected us personally or because we though they would be of use to the wider Oakwood community; the subjects were; the IPP sentence, Joint Enterprise, Racial profiling (for those that come into contact with the criminal justice system) and lastly, the subject of court transcripts and who has access to them. The OU group visited us on three occasions the first being an introduction and opportunity for us to set their task, the interim visit to give a progress report, indulge in our company and eat our biscuits and the final session to give a verbal report of their findings and to hand over a well presented package of information relating to the lines of enquiry and any other related pieces of information they felt would be useful to us. As an exercise in the breaking down of barriers between the incarcerated and the community it was extremely successful, the students and their lecturer were delightful and spending time with them was a great distraction form the normal routine. The students assured us that their perception of a ‘prisoner’ (the word is pejorative but serves in this instance) was much changed and they enjoyed the encounter. But as an exercise in the dissemination of new and ground breaking legal facts it was not that successful. The reason for my negative remark is in no way a reflection on the work done by the diligent students but merely a reflection on the access we now have to information; the residents here have a telephone in their room and most know someone they can phone who has internet access. Most questions can be answered in this way from the comfort of your room. The staff here at Oakwood are also able to assist in the provision of information and if it is pertinent to you rehabilitation they will download relevant data upon request. However, we are extremely grateful to the students and lecturer for giving their time and resources to provide us with the information we requested. We all took great pleasure in the exercise and hope that further engagement with the OU will be possible. We wish the students luck in their studies and hope they all reach their goals.

Lucy

Throughout March and April, we attended HMP Oakwood to work with prisoner mentors and the St Giles Trust to research any legal issues the mentors suggested. This included joint enterprise, the imprisonment for public protection sentence (IPP’s), racial profiling within the criminal justice system and the destruction of court transcripts amongst other smaller topics. Prior to our first visit, I believed that all prisoners deserved to be in jail and that they should ‘do the time’ for the crimes they’ve committed. However, I tried to keep an open mind upon arrival at the prison and form an educated opinion after meeting the mentors. Which is exactly what they were, not prisoners, mentors. I’ve never met such polite humans! The second they entered the room they introduced themselves and shook your hand and offered you a cuppa and a biscuit… amazing! Instantly you forgot you were in a prison and it felt like you were in their home (which is technically true!) and this made the discussions we had over the next two visits so much easier, even when we were feeding back negative findings. Very quickly we discovered some of the mentors we spoke to were serving life sentences without even committing any crimes, which further proved my point of not judging a book by its cover. The mentors were a credit to HMP Oakwood and the St Giles Trust. Working with the St Giles Trust was brilliant. I had no idea that they existed until working on this project with them, and I’m very glad I got the opportunity to do so. Steve and Tammia were very welcoming and ensured that we didn’t just see the good side of the prison but also the not so good side when taking us on tours of the prison, which I really appreciated. During the tours, many of the prisoners that Tammia helped rehabilitate greeted her with such respect just passing by and this triggered my interest in wanting to work with St Giles Trust (specifically wanting Tammia’s job!). It must be so fulfilling to be able to see your hard work walking about the prison and this made me appreciate the work St Giles Trust do even more. Although we didn’t necessarily better the prison mentors’ legal knowledge, I’m very grateful to have had this experience and it’s something I can take with me to job interviews because I feel I gained so much knowledge and practical experience. It was so fun researching topics like joint enterprise, especially as it is currently in the news, but I was also bettering my legal knowledge on topics I was unaware of. I’ll miss our visits to HMP Oakwood, after every visit I was bursting with excitement about what I’d experienced throughout my ‘days in prison’. Big thanks to the Open University for creating this pilot project, enabling us to gain such valuable experience which will help in so many ways in our future endeavours. Also thank you to the St Giles Trust, specifically Steve and Tammia for letting us be a part of your team and taking time out of your busy days to accompany us and unlock and lock again every door we walked through! HMP Oakwood, thank you, it’s been a pleasure and the best experience I’ve had so far!

Sean

I was delighted when I found out I had been chosen to participate in the HMP Oakwood project as I thought taking part would be hugely beneficial to my studies and help enhance my experience section on my CV. Throughout the three visits I feel as though I have learnt far more about prison and prisoners than I ever could just by reading materials. I found many of my prejudices regarding offenders challenged and I now have a completely different view on the matter (obviously taking into consideration I met just a handful of people). Taking part in the actual research helped me understand some of the deeper social issues associated with offenders. My primary task was producing a report on the systematic destruction of Crown Court audio files and records. I found this extremely interesting as this is a subject I would know nothing about only by following the curriculum of my course – and I certainly wouldn’t have done the research just to satisfy my own curiosity. My other secondary tasks were to create a report and presentation on the negative impacts of long term sentencing and on discrimination in sentencing. Whilst I already knew about these issues as they are highly documented, I enjoyed the research nonetheless and feel that they have deepened my understanding. Throughout the whole experience I have learnt how to coordinate my time to juggle the demands of the work and to take more pride in work that won’t be marked as I got the opportunity to deliver my findings in person. Actually meeting the prisoners face to face has helped me with speaking to groups (if I can deliver a presentation in prison than anywhere else will be easy!). To sum up, this project has helped put a lot of my previous legal study into perspective and has certainly had an impact on my future. I plan on attempting to do more volunteer work with the St Giles Trust. I can, and I highly recommend this opportunity to be extended to other students and for those students to take it.