The lack of available legal representation for low income persons is a persistent problem, and not only in the U.S. Cuts to legal services programs have been deep in England and Wales, where access to civil legal aid has fallen by more than half.
In a recent post, a Solicitor Tutor at Northumbria University, Newcastle, lauds U.K. law schools for increasing clinical opportunities for students, but cautions against using them to attempt to fill the increased need for pro bono legal services. Her message is both important and familiar:
But what we mustn’t do is look upon law schools as a replacement for legal aid, or a sticking plaster for a somewhat bruised legal system.
We cannot forget that this is clinical legal education, designed to give law students the opportunity to hone their practical legal skills, to experience what it is like to sit opposite a real person with a real issue and help them solve a problem. They need to understand how the cases and legislation they learn about in the classroom truly affect individuals and organisations – and to reflect meaningfully on their personal strengths and weaknesses.
Thankfully, we may have moved beyond this corrective conversation in the U.S., where the ABA requires 6 credits of experiential education for all students graduating from accredited law schools, starting very soon. The ABA mandate is intended to improve educational outcomes, not to fill the void for legal services. Experiential courses are explicitly required to integrate and develop legal doctrine, skills, and values through faculty-supervised performances and self-assessments (ABA Standard 303(a)(3)). In contrast, pro bono opportunities “need not be structured to accomplish any of the outcomes required by Standard 302” (Interpretation 303-3). While there is often a wonderful overlap between clinical courses/field placements and public service, it is nice to see the distinction between them articulated by the ABA.
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