OU Lecturer in law Kate Holtaway shares her experience of delivering clinical legal education in a legal advice desert and offers her perspective on the use and challenges of digital technologies in Cornwall.
Law students have always been drawn to opportunities to gain experience in providing legal advice. It enhances their employability and helps them to gain confidence, transforming their academic experiences into tangible skills that help to make a difference in the real world. In cities where legal advice is available from a variety of organisations, students benefit from opportunities to be mentored by academics and practicing lawyers in giving legal advice to members of the public. In legal advice deserts however, of which Cornwall is an example, resources are more stretched. This invariably means a lack of capacity to support students. For a number of years the County has had to be innovative to help tackle the gaps in the provision of legal advice. Legal educators have had to be innovative too to ensure that law students are given plenty of opportunity to enhance their studies with clinical work experience.
In December 2022 Kate Holtaway, a lecturer in law at the Open University and Liz Hardie, Teaching Director for the Open University Law School presented their insights at the Conference on "Justice Education: Building Resilience and Strong Connections in Times of Global Challenges” which was held in Stellenbosch, South Africa: https://www.gaje.org/11th-GAJE-Worldwide-Conference. Kate shared her experience in delivering clinical legal education in a legal advice desert and offered her perspective on the use and challenges of digital technologies in Cornwall. Key to navigating the challenges has been developing connections between all relevant stakeholders and joining forces. This enables the sharing of expertise, a system of signposting and the utilisation of an increasing student body to help facilitate the provision of legal advice. The steer for collaboration was pioneered by a small community hub in a remote part of Cornwall called the Dracaena Centre in Falmouth.
The Centre offers a variety of opportunities for members of the local community including an affordable café, youth activities and sport, counselling and support for people struggling with a number of issues including mental health problems, addiction, disability, domestic violence and family issues. In recent years the Centre responded to a clear gap in the provision of legal advice and began offering legal support in welfare benefits, debt and family law cases. The project expanded to include a legal help desk at Truro Combined Court to assist litigants in person in debt and family cases. Initially the project was intended to cover the immediate geographic area but over time it is clear that people started to travel from all parts of Cornwall to access free legal advice.
The team is very small, consisting of two people employed on a part time basis and a number of volunteers. Funding is always an issue and the project continues to exist due to the commitment of the volunteers and a ‘fingers crossed’ approach to funding pots. Hundreds of clients have been supported despite very little marketing. This demonstrates a much larger need and reflects the concern of the Law Society that “In large areas of England and Wales, people cannot access legal aid advice” (Law Society (2022). This is due to a number of factors including the reduction in legal aid funding and the closure of legal aid solicitor firms and advice clinics. Referrals are increasingly made from organisations like Citizens Advice, Children and Family Services, the Food Bank, ADACTION, local solicitors and Age Concern who struggle to provide clients with the support they need.
The Dracaena Centre clearly sees just the tip of the iceberg, but has made large steps in the right direction in helping to tackle the issues. The small team is led by a non-practising family solicitor and a volunteer who is very experienced in debt cases. A connection has been made with the Legal Advice Centre in London which has a wealth of experienced barristers and solicitors. Meetings can be arranged using Skype, so that where particular legal expertise is sought, it can quickly be arranged, meaning that members of the public have access to free relevant legal advice when they need it. This has led to many success stories and has provided significant relief to a number of litigants in person.
During the establishment of the legal project the county has also seen improvements in the provision of legal education. This has provided potential to reinforce the pro-bono workforce with able students needing front line experience. Exeter University launched its Law and Business LLB in 2019 which brought over 300 law students to the county. In addition Truro and Penwith College launched their LLB ‘top up’ degree in 2022 enabling local students to complete their legal education without having to travel out of the county, as they did before. One of the issues in Cornwall historically was that aspiring lawyers would need to leave the county to pursue their legal careers elsewhere, and would seldomly return. The new law degrees in Cornwall provide an opportunity to upskill the local population and to attract and grow new expertise, substantively addressing the skill shortage. Both degrees include clinical legal education modules. Exeter’s ‘Access to Justice’ module and Truro and Penwith’s ‘Pro-bono’ module, both credit-bearing, encourage students to volunteer with the Dracaena Centre or with another relevant organisation and to commit to a number of weeks, to facilitate the provision of legal advice and to offer support to the organisations which have for so long struggled to find volunteers. Students receive training and support before their first contact with clients, which increases their confidence and ability to support those seeking advice. The link with the Legal Advice Centre in London has given students experience of facilitating online legal advice and has also given them the opportunity to shadow lawyers with expertise they may not otherwise have encountered. Students are now readily permitted to attend the local court as McKenzie friends and the once vast and relatively unconnected pro-bono legal profession in Cornwall has become more unified in its pursuit of closing the advice gap.
What is clear is that whilst technology has supported the provision of legal advice, people are not deterred from geographically challenging travel. Countless stories have been collected of people spending hours on buses to gain reassurance from a friendly face, even where the required expertise is ultimately provided from London via Skype. This is particularly true of elderly people who more commonly lack an appropriate device, who have a lack of access to the internet or live in Wi-Fi blackspots, and who typically lack digital skills. There is also concern that if provision were to be entirely online, social cues would be missed where clients might be distressed for example or suffering domestic abuse. Students are great at providing a friendly face and they are also increasingly being trained to use technology, meaning they have the digital competence and confidence that clients sometimes lack. In conclusion, the key to addressing legal advice deserts, lack of expertise and the need to provide meaningful clinical legal education in remote areas is collaboration. Where the advice needed is miles away, technology is imperative in closing the gap, and students provide an ideal solution in facilitating the face-to-face support that clients need to feel reassured.
Law Society ‘Legal Aid Deserts’ (Law Society, 22 August 2022) <Legal aid deserts | The Law Society> accessed 5 January 2023.
Image: Granite boulders on the summit of Rough Tor, one of the highest points of Bodmin Moor, lit by evening sunlight, north Cornwall, England, United Kingdom, Europe CREDIT: Nigel Hicks/robertharding Rights Managed /
Kate is a lecturer in Law at The Open University Law School and has extensive experience in developing modules in clinical legal education. Her full bio is here: Kate Holtaway | OU people profiles (open.ac.uk)