Work is continuing apace on our Open Justice project and we hope to have plenty more to share in the next few months. In the meantime, members of the Open Justice team have also been attending various events, including a great day on supervising university law clinics, so we thought we’d share some thoughts about how these work.
From talking to various universities with established law clinics, it seems the format can vary greatly. Although all have the core aim of providing legal advice and assistance to members of the public who are struggling to access it via other means, there are lots of different approaches taken.
All law clinics have some form of “triaging” process, whereby initial queries from potential clients are assessed for suitability. This is really important to ensure that students working in the clinic are being given issues they can deal with and that clients are going to receive useful support – as someone said to us, it is not the case that any advice is better than no advice! If the queries aren’t suitable, then law clinics will usually offer some form of referral service, or at least some suggestions as to who else might be able to assist.
Following that, there is then usually a face-to-face interview with the client. It seems that sometimes this is conducted by students working alone, at other times with students being supervised by staff members from the law clinic, or solicitors and barristers from local firms. The students will have to make a careful record of what is discussed. They will then need to undertake research on the issues that have been raised.
Whilst some law clinics seem to provide verbal advice virtually on the spot, with students conducting any research right there and then, most seem to require students to spend some time reflecting and then draft a letter of advice for the client. At that point, some clinics might refer the client on to a local law firm, others might be prepared to take on potential claims and act for the client at a tribunal or court hearing, with a variety of other approaches in between.
So far, at the Open University, we are planning to initially offer an advice-only service based around contract, tort and consumer rights issues – areas which will sound very familiar to any W202 students! Instead of face-to-face interviews, our plan is to offer an online alternative, supervised by members of the Open Justice Team. Students will then have the time to research the issues and draft a letter of reply, with the possibility of a follow-up interview.
Developing a law clinic at the Open University raises lots of challenges – how can we ensure clients can access our services easily, how can we utilise the technology we have most effectively and give students and clients the best possible experience. All university law clinics also face wider questions – should advice be provided to businesses, what is the best way to comply with laws on data protection and confidentiality (amongst others) and how can students best develop the skills needed to support clients.
These questions can be challenging, but we believe that there is huge potential for our Open Justice project to add to the amazing work already being done in this area. Watch this space!
Emma, Hugh and Francine
The Open Justice Team