Saturday, July 3, 2010

Law clinics at risk from university funding cuts

The planned £649m cuts in university funding in the coming year would not, at first glance, seem to have much to do with the dwindling pool of legal services for disadvantaged communities. But there is a very real possibility that as universities gear up to protect "frontline" activity from the brutal effects of the funding squeeze, their many law clinics (some only recently established) will find themselves losing out in the fierce competition for waning central or local government support.

There are many advantages for aspiring legal practitioners in law schools such as Kent, Bristol, Strathclyde and Manchester in participating in law clinics. They enable students to enjoy the benefits of a pedagogy geared to explore the interface between theory and practice. But these educational advantages are far outweighed by the value law clinics bring to the local communities they serve.

Although lagging behind their counterparts in the US legal academy, it is now an undeniable fact the UK university law school is a substantial provider of legal services to those who would otherwise have severely limited or no access to justice. Legal advice, representation and assistance are offered across a diverse range of expertise, but these clinics are determinedly oriented toward social rights and social welfare claims: employment, social security, housing, debt as well as immigration and asylum. And until the double-shock of funding cuts which emerged between the old and the new governments, we could dare to hope that these clinics would continue to operate within an environment relatively insulated from the need to make the kind of calculations that cut swaths across the Law Centre movement in the past two decades.

It's true that law clinics have never been entirely dependent on university funding, often receiving financial support from large firms of local solicitors as well as the invaluable efforts of LawWorks, an organisation set up to assist schools in establishing law clinics. But without labouring the comparison between local authorities and university central management, it is telling that the latter's immediate reaction to funding cuts was to begin to draw a line (ill-determined, admittedly) between essential and non-essential university activity. Further, the invariable response to the imperative to make savings is to seek alternative sources of income from private donors, thereby placing under threat the "not-for-profit" ideology which recent history tells us is the only secure form in which the minimum social rights of vulnerable communities can be secured.

The general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), Sally Hunt, fears the loss of the precious "student experience" of university. In the more confined context of the university law school, what must be guarded against too is the loss of the experience of the university that is brought to an increasingly dependent local community in search of legal redress.

In the past six months or so, both the University of Reading and UEL have established law clinics, and Birkbeck Law School is gearing up to enter the field. We have come a long way from the days when heads of university law schools were less than supportive of law clinics. Universities and their law schools have revealed to local residents the colour of their money and there has been no indication that the commitment to providing pro bono legal services will be retrenched.

Yet we must be vigilant: those precariously placed within the spectrum of the political economy are the first to feel the brunt of a downturn, even when they are not the direct targets of cuts and savings. So, when the university asks itself: "What is essential spending? What constitutes front line services?", it must take account of the duty it owes to the vulnerable asylum-seeker that Refugee and Migrant Justice (the latest in a list of specialist advisers whose existence is under threat) may no longer be able to serve.

• Law On Trial, a week of events at Birkbeck University at which law is held to public account, begins today.

Professor Patricia Tuitt is executive dean of the School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London. She is author of False Images: Law's Construction of the Refugee (1996) and Race, Law, Resistance (2004).

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