The University of Northumbria at Newcastle has applied 20 years of research into clinical legal education to pioneer an ambitious and modern educational approach: The Student Law Office. Whilst offering students a unique opportunity to gain on-the-job experience and skills, the Student Law Office’s voluntary legal services have made a major difference in a region with high social deprivation. Students have secured more than £840,000 of compensation on behalf of more than 1,000 clients who would otherwise not have access to professional legal services between 2008 and 2013.
Research by the University’s Law School revealed that supervised real life experience helps students to understand the legal rules and practical reflection required for legal practice. The Law School pioneered legal clinics as part of its curriculum and today, Northumbria’s Student Law Office (SLO) provides a unique learning experience which helps both students improve their employability and benefits the local community. Each year approximately 170 undergraduate and postgraduate law students are supervised by 20 members of staff with support from administrators and trainee solicitors.
The SLO has also encouraged more law firms in the North East to become involved in pro-bono (free legal) work. It set up the Pro Bono hub with charity LawWorks which collaborates with 10 regional law firms on Law School-inspired projects. This successful collaboration also led LawWorks to expand the model to other regions including the North West and Wales.
It also has close links with charities and community organisations including a partnership with Shelter, the homeless charity, offering a national advice service to homeless and at risk clients. Students research and advise on complex problems that Shelter’s advisors are unable to resolve. Meanwhile the SLO has worked with Newcastle Citizens Advice Bureau to develop a new form of training and accreditation for law students that allows them to become Gateway advisors, dealing with over 6,000 issues in two years. The SLO has also collaborated with Age UK and Victim Support on providing accessible legal advice for their clients.
The Law School has become internationally renowned as a centre of excellence for clinical legal education, hosting regular fact-finding visits from MPs, government ministers and professional regulators, as well as educators worldwide aiming to set up similar facilities. To date, student law offices based on the Northumbria model have been established in countries across Europe, Japan, Bangladesh, the USA and most recently in Uganda.