‘This is Real Life Law’ by Maurice Doona

In this blog post Open Justice law student Maurice Doona reflects on his experience of working to support litigants in person as they try to navigate the complexities of the family law court system.

‘This is Real Life Law’

Recently, a District Judge sitting at West London Family Court (WLFC) asked if he could share a table with me at a café over lunch. I volunteer at the Personal Support Unit (PSU) at WLFC. He had presided over hearings at which I was present, assisting clients through the private family law process. We had a brief discussion about being a law student practising voluntary legal work. Our conversation led me to reflect on how my understanding of pro bono legal work has been enhanced by volunteering at the PSU and led me to consider my motivations for getting involved.

I undertook the Open Justice module with a view that it would assist me in applying my legal studies to real-world situations. This coupled with my personal goal in achieving a ‘good’ law degree led me to apply to the PSU as a volunteer. It was clear that that these factors were all about my desires to succeed as part of my degree but on further reflection there was much more to it.

I had appreciated prior to joining the PSU, that their remit is not to provide legal advice and are not insured to do so. It is to assist Litigants in Person (LIP’s) with the court process through practical and emotional support before, during and after hearings. This has aided my understanding of how complex and daunting the legal system can be for those who do not have the financial means to pay for legal assistance. It has led to a realisation that I possess practical skills to help clients through the family courts.

This includes assisting clients with the paperwork and empowering them to have control of their personal legal issues. It can be by helping them to work out and practice their oral submissions. This leads to increased confidence and reduced anxiety which in turn allows the client a fairer hearing, especially, where the other party may have legal representation. Hearings in the Family Court are private proceedings, it is a privilege to have been provided access to the Court assisting clients who wish to provide a stable environment for their children. For example, being able to support a client in the successful award of an emergency order preventing removal of the children from the jurisdiction over the school holidays was humbling. The client had arrived at the court in a distressed and vulnerable state at 9am. She was directed to the PSU by security, fortunately we were able to assist her as some hearings had been transferred. I assisted the client to complete the C100 form ‘child arrangements’ and liaised with the court staff to process the application and to schedule an emergency same day hearing.

The skills that I have developed, I believe, both from a legal and general life experience, aided the client receiving access to justice. This was ‘Real Life Law’ in practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://50.open.ac.uk/photography/stephenak

And follow us on Twitter for more regular updates @OU_SiSE