“This time last year we were sitting with our head in our hands, thinking how can we virtually run a law clinic?”
When the Covid-19 pandemic begun, myself and the rest of the staff at the Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre (QMLAC) were faced with the biggest challenge since our founding in 2006. Moving our entire operation, which brings together undergraduate law students and volunteer lawyers to help provide free legal advice and public legal education projects, to an online model proved to be a steep learning curve. Our clinic is unrecognisable from where we were eighteen months ago, with all appointments taking place online and a case management system which allows our students, staff and volunteers to coordinate effectively.
Like everywhere, we’ve had mishaps along the way (like not being able to add an extra person to a Skype call, resulting in their participating through a held up mobile phone), but it’s the incidental and everyday contact with the students our team have missed most of all. Some things have remained the same, however. I continue to be inspired by the support our students show each other, and how emotionally effecting the work we do with them is (even through a computer screen).
The majority of QMLAC’s work is as a free community law centre. Students lead client appointments, supervised by volunteer barristers and solicitors before writing a letter of legal advice. We work with clients on the areas of law that tend to affect those least able to access legal support, including landlord and tenant, employment and criminal law. Our clients are almost always litigants in person, and our role is to ensure they are as prepared and informed as possible. We have also created clinics for those in society who might face specific challenges, such as:
- our Pink Law project working with the LGBT+ community
- the SPITE project for victims of image based sexual abuse (which includes working with local secondary schools)
- the Black Justice Project for the black community seeking advice on employment discrimination, actions against the police and claims under the Windrush scandal.
Students also run a disability benefits clinic helping those who have been denied lifesaving benefits, which secured over £220k in benefits for our clients this year.
Clinical legal education can be an invaluable tool in preparing students for the workplace. Not only does it provide technical skills such as legal expertise, interview research, drafting and client interaction but it also widens the perspective of students. For many it will be the first time they may have met or worked with vulnerable individuals or those who cannot pay their rent. Students on our prison project often find they learn as much from their clients as the prisoners do from our workshops.
We see an increased flexibility and resilience from students, through learning how to cope when matters do not run as expected. If a client is late sending in their follow-up documents, students begin to understand the blunt reality that frequently their clients have so much going on in their lives that sending documents to us is not an immediate priority. These experiences help students to realise that legal education is a privilege and to genuinely understand the importance of undertaking pro bono work throughout their careers. These ‘disorientating moments’ turn experiences into education. As one LAC Student Adviser said;
“I feel humbled to have been given the chance to meet so many incredible people, work with some amazing supervisors and help the clients I was assigned. Working at the LAC gave me what very few other opportunities do – a chance to experience law in practice and to apply what I have learnt in the classroom to the real world, all without being a lawyer yet!”
Our work would not be possible without the support of volunteer lawyers, who sign off work to ensure it’s accurate and helpful. Many alumni who worked in the clinic as students come back to volunteer once they are established in their careers. One alumni volunteer lawyer, Barrister Gareth Rhys said;
“I got so much out of being a Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre student advisor during my LLB, so returning as a qualified lawyer supervisor was an easy decision to make. Participating in pro bono work at the QMLAC is an important part of my professional life. The QMLAC is a pioneer, both as a quality provider of clinical legal education and as fulfilling an important role for those in need of legal assistance. The QMLAC is a unique organisation because of its pioneering initiatives – such as the Pink Law LGBTQIA+ project and the recent Black Justice Project – which are innovative and much-needed legal resources.”
From both students and volunteer lawyers, we hear the same message time and time again: it can be easy to get bogged down in their day to day of equities and trusts, but their work with us reminds them why they love the law.
At the moment, we’re particularly interested in hearing from lawyers with a background in employment, environmental (in the widest sense of the word) or real estate law. But we’re happy to hear from anyone who would like to help, regardless of their expertise. We’ll support you through your volunteering with us, and would love to hear from you ([email protected]).