Supporting disadvantaged people through the court process
Facing a court of law alone is an intimidating prospect. But for people who can't afford legal representation, it can be a real barrier to accessing justice. Law students at Leeds Beckett are directly involved in a project to support disadvantaged people through the court process.
Cuts to legal aid over the years have left thousands of people in the UK having to face court alone. With no legal representation they're forced to represent themselves. Whether they're going through a divorce, seeking custody of their children or claiming for a personal injury, they have to find their own way through a complex legal system. Not surprisingly, many of them struggle. However, students from Leeds Law School are helping people to get a fair hearing through the Support Through Court service.
As part of their studies, students on the LLB (Hons) Law course have the opportunity to work directly with Support Through Court through a day release placement module offered during their third year. All students in the university can work with Support Through Court by volunteering. But what does the work entail?
"There are two elements to it", Rachel continues. "There's the telephone service, which is based at the university. So, students do telephone appointments where they will help clients fill out court forms over the phone. And they go to court two days a week for in-person appointments. They can accompany clients into the courtroom, take notes for them and give them a bit of guidance about who the different people are. It's very much a hand-holding role – getting the people through the system."
The legal system's really hard to navigate, and if you don't have any knowledge of it, it can feel impossible for a lot of people. Support Through Court is a charity. Their purpose is to help people who don't have any legal representation to navigate the court system.
For students, it's a great opportunity to learn how the court system works and to deal with real people in real cases. Though that in itself might seem quite daunting! How are students helped to prepare for this real-life experience?
"They'll undergo training on how to work with clients beforehand. It's mainly about family and civil law, as these are common areas that come up. Especially with family, they'll receive more directed training around things like domestic abuse, as that's quite common. They'll also run through how the telephone service works and how to book appointments, and they'll get training on how to fill out common court forms.
They're supervised when they're actually working with Support Through Court, and there are other volunteers who are there to support students as well – they can jump on the phone and guide them through things."
Specifically then, what kind of skills and experiences do students gain from their time with Support Through Court?
"Definitely oral communication", confirms Rachel. "That's the thing they're doing most. Also time management and organisation. They have a certain number of clients booked in and they need to make sure that they get through those appointments. Then there's the softer skills as well, being able to demonstrate empathy with the client because sometimes they can be really upset.
They also get exposure to an aspect of the legal world that they can put on their CV. Not every student is going to get a two-week placement with a law firm, but Support Through Court gives them an opportunity to learn about legal procedures and practically engage with it. So they can say "I've worked with clients, I've been to court with them, I've seen how a case operates."
Another thing to note is that, under the new route to qualification for solicitors, the work students do with Support Through Court counts as Qualifying Work Experience. So while they're on the scheme, at university, they're accruing experience that can help them further down the line when they're trying to qualify."
Returning to the original need for a service like Support Through Court, the partnership with Leeds Beckett isn't just about the quality of the learning experience for students – there's clearly a benefit to the wider community as well.
Rachel Dunn agrees.
"It feeds into the university's mission around social justice and wanting to help members of the wider community. Without Support Through Court there'd be a huge gap in the system for a lot of people who can't afford legal assistance. The courts and judges like Support Through Court too. Because people are getting support, it makes things run more smoothly in the courtroom and saves court time. So our students are definitely helping to deliver a much-needed service."
Rachel oversees the clinical and employability activities at Leeds Law School. She completed her PhD in 2017 which explored knowledge, skills and attributes developed in law clinics. Rachel continues to research legal education and is a specialist in animal law.