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How are students contributing to the UCL Centre for Access to Justice?

UCL Laws offers a practical community engagement course to final year undergraduates, providing them with a hands-on experience of legal education in a Connected Curriculum framework.

18 May 2015

Shiva Riahi (UCL Laws, Centre Manager) and Rachel Knowles (UCL Laws, Centre Teaching Fellow/Solicitor) take the lead on a practical community engagement course offered to final year undergraduates, providing them with a hands-on experience of legal education in a Connected Curriculum framework.

The UCL Centre for Access to Justice provides students with an opportunity to work on real cases with partnership organisations and clients in the local community through the Access to Justice and Community Engagement Course (AJCE). Students are provided with training and support throughout the course and gain a practical understanding of academic law in a working context by representing clients “who would otherwise be unable to afford it”. Not only does the course teach case procedure but it shows students the reality of law, which is often highly complex.

Having taken the course recently in her final year, Shiva highlights the appeal of the final year course. “I saw the course as a bridge between academic law and real-world practice,” she explained. “Legal education teaches you a lot about law but very little about what it actually means to be a lawyer.” The course is extremely popular and receives a high number of applications but potential participants are made aware of how tough and challenging it will be from the start (they also take part in an interview process).

“Law careers advice usually takes a corporate focus but this is an opportunity for students to see how the discipline works in a social and community context.” Students are able to see how their skills and academic understanding translate when faced with a real client in a social engagement capacity and as Shiva puts, “It’s a good way to get them thinking about what the other possible options are.”

Although pro-bono clinics exist in other institutions, the partnerships model is unique to UCL. Rachel explains, “University drop-in centres are usually focussed on consulting and purely giving the client advice. Students who take the AJCE course will see a case from start to finish with direct contact with the client throughout.”

Another difference is that the course is integrated in the curriculum as opposed to being an extra-curricular option. Students are able to benefit from the practical experience alongside the support and experience of staff through academic expertise and training.

Preparation plays an important part in facilitating a course which focuses heavily on practical application. Rachel expands on this, “Prior to starting their placement, students attend a full Saturday of training where we focus on case work skills and role playing exercises.” Students are given a crash course in the skills needed to work on sensitive and challenging cases and are required to work with their peers to produce presentations which they must critique.

It proves a valuable learning opportunity for all students who take part. The course is different to other aspects of their degree and requires a different kind of hard work - this reflects in the students’ feedback. “They feel it gives them the social awareness element they have sought from undertaking a law degree,” Shiva says it has been overwhelmingly positive: “We have had comments ranging from how humanising the experience has been, to the fact it has changed their mind-set. One student wrote that it reminded them of why they studied law in the first place.”

Similarly, the client feedback has been very positive with many commenting on the professionalism, helpfulness and knowledge of the students.

The course exemplifies what a Connected Curriculum might look like – Shiva and Rachel presented their work at the recent Teaching and Learning Conference. The framework offers six dimensions to make teaching and learning a research-based (rather than research-led) experience which can be seen in the course.

“Students work with staff and students throughout the placement to build a community of practice,” Rachel explains. “They will work together to share their experiences of problems or challenges they are facing and learn how to negotiate these problems as colleagues.” Another dimension of the framework looks towards making connections beyond the classroom which the social engagement aspect of the course promotes. “Students are working with real people in the local community to not only hone their skills but to make a real difference.”

So what does the future of the course look like? “We hope to expand the centre and course and work with international partners to give students the opportunity to gain some international experience and exposure,” Shiva shares, “UCL East may provide opportunities as we are well-placed to inform future research in this area and the community has a significant need for advice services.”

Rachel and Shiva offer advice for colleagues looking for guidance on how they might incorporate a Connected Curriculum-inspired programme within their own department, “It’s important to look beyond UCL and seek out partnerships in London and beyond as they are often able to assist the blending of academic and theoretical knowledge with the practical understanding. And ultimately, trust your students to be able to deliver.”

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