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The UCL Centre for Access to Justice

UCL East

"When I was studying law I wanted to make a difference"

“When I was studying law at UCL I was one of those sappy people who wanted to make a difference,” laughs alumna Shiva Riahi (Law 2012). In her final year, Shiva was one of eight students to successfully apply for the UCL Centre for Access to Justice’s pilot Access to Justice and Community Engagement course.

When she completed her course, Shiva applied to be a research assistant at the UCL Centre for Access to Justice (CAJ) and is now the manager. “I always thought I’d be a lawyer,” she says. “But I love what I do here. There are a lot of different ways to use the law to help people.”

She explains the founding mission of the CAJ: “To enrich students’ education by adding the experience of working with real clients. The Centre has a holistic approach – it was built on Professor Dame Hazel Genn’s research, which showed how people’s legal problems tended to cascade into other areas of life, such as health,” she says. “For instance, unfair dismissal or workplace bullying can lead to stress and mental health problems, which in turn has an impact on the NHS. I think that link between the academic and the practical is quite unique to UCL.”

The Centre operates on a micro level, sending students to represent clients in tribunals to, for example, secure benefits or overturn a pending eviction. “The benefits system is difficult for people to navigate,” says Shiva. “We help clients understand the questions being asked of them. Our intervention can mean the difference between being able to pay rent and homelessness.”

But CAJ also works on a macro level, both in terms of its impact on students and potential influence on government policy. “We have a lot of students who go on to work in corporate law,” says Shiva. “But they go there with a sense of social justice. One student was so inspired he went back to Hong Kong to try and set up similar pro bono programmes there. And the research we are doing at the Sir Ludwig Guttmann Health & Wellbeing Centre, for example, will, we hope, eventually inform policy.”

The Centre in the borough of Newham was originally built for the 2012 London Olympics to treat athletes. It now houses a general practice downstairs and the UCL Legal Advice Clinic, part of the CAJ, upstairs. This, in Shiva’s view, makes perfect sense. The Centre, on the UCL East site, is one of the projects enabling UCL to support the integration and enrichment of the lives of local communities.

The project is still in its first year, but Shiva says it aims to expand to receive referrals from other GPs in the Newham area. “The Citizens Advice Bureau sometimes has outposts in GP surgeries, but I think UCL is unique in having a student clinic,” she says.

Philanthropy has played, and will continue to play, a critical role in the success and impact of the UCL Centre for Access to Justice in East London. Through UCL’s Global Philanthropic and Engagement Campaign, the UCL Legal Advice Clinic at the Sir Ludwig Guttmann Health & Wellbeing Centre will continue to provide disadvantaged communities with access to free legal advice within a local health setting, as well as shape and influence policy to better support communities around the UK and the world. The Clinic has recently supported its 100th client. You can read more about the story on the Laws website.

Donor support helps to maintain and expand activities of the UCL CAJ by providing funding to help run the advice sessions and provide students with specialist training for casework. It also helps enhance summer maintenance bursaries for students who could otherwise not afford to live in London and undertake unpaid social welfare law work experience. It is essential to help fund additional expert supervision to extend the range of UCL’s advice and case work services. 

Philanthropy will ensure the Centre, which has more than 8,000 patients, and the CAJ can grow its legal services and reach even more people in the London Borough of Newham, the third most deprived local authority in England.

Read the full case study here (pdf)