‘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.