Is it inappropriate for the legal system to come to depend at least in part on student work? Jane Ching considers the options.

‘Access to justice’ seems to be the phrase of the moment, for both legal professionals and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). What exactly access to justice means, however, is more problematic. 

What the MoJ sees as the streamlining of systems to improve access is regarded by legal professionals and others as a bitter assault on it. A clear example is provided by the practitioner consensus opposing the MoJ’s introduction of increased court fees, claiming the changes make seeking justice unaffordable for individuals and small business.

Law schools have long given students the chance to gain valuable practical experience by involving themselves in law clinics and other pro bono activity. The growth in this activity has at least matched the ongoing reductions in the legal aid budget.

The success of law school clinics in this country is largely down to the enthusiasm, stamina and determination of students - undergraduate and postgraduate - and their tutors. Places on clinic modules are competitively sought after – the clinic is rarely compulsory. Students, with the support of equally committed law school staff, achieve great things.

Clinics and student pro bono groups assist their own university or their local community, or work with groups such as Bars in their Eyes or the Free Represnetation Unit. They operate beyond our shores, in Innocence projects and support advice centres and similar groups elsewhere. They conduct public legal education outreach activities (such as Street law). 

The LawWorks student pro bono database lists nearly 150 law schools and colleges in the UK with some form of student pro bono activity. The LawWorks Law School Pro Bono and Clinic Report 2014 suggests that around 70% of law schools in the UK now operate some form of pro bono activity, often without external funding, although charities and law firms can be generous supporters (by, for example, providing supervisors and mentors).

Students, with the support of equally committed law school staff, achieve great things

Internal funding by the host law school is not always provided or explicit, (for example, for premises, administrative support, practising certificates or formal allocation of the cost of academic staff time). 

The more-than 6,000 students involved are occupied across a spectrum involving ‘quasi legal advice’ (letter-writing, form-filling, mentoring); Street law and other public legal information activities; placements; specialist and generalist clinics (some of which provide both advice and representation); Innocence Project and other miscarriage of justice projects. Co-organising a conference in June this year, Legal Education and Access to Justice, it has become very clear to me how varied the activity is, and that it is not confined to the first world or to the common law. 

The LawWorks report does not estimate the financial value of the services provided, whether or not subsidised by charities, law firms or the law schools themselves. However, the value of private practice solicitors’ pro bono work in 2014 was put by the Law Society at £600m. Although such work need not have been work that would once have attracted legal aid, the value is a notable comparator against the £1,709.5m expended in civil and criminal legal aid in 2013/14.

Is it inappropriate for the legal system to come to depend at least in part - if that is the direction in which we are beginning to travel - on student work? Many professions from medicine to hairdressing and catering operate supervised student-led clinics of some kind. They are beneficial to students, in our case by allowing them to contextualise the positivist law they debate in the classroom. 

They also provide a service to the public and thereby to the country. Committed and enthusiastic students, supervised by committed, enthusiastic and experienced academic staff and other mentors, can and do produce exceptional work. The question is whether the country should come to depend on such philanthropy to provide ‘access to justice’.

Jane Ching, professor of legal education, Nottingham Law School