Plugging a gap: students help around 900 local people with legal problems
“I don’t know what I’d have done without you” is a phrase that keeps cropping up in the thank you notes received from local people who have visited the University of Sussex’s free law clinics for advice this year.
Students from the law school have been volunteering on a number of Sussex Clinical Legal Education projects to provide free legal advice to local people on issues as diverse as housing, employment, criminal, family and prisoner problems.
Sarah (not her real name) is one of the clients who put pen to paper to thank her student supporters recently. Sarah was charged with an offence and was adamant that it was unfair. Not qualifying for legal aid, she turned to the criminal justice law clinic at the University of Sussex.
The students there spoke with her and looked at the details of the case, and agreed. They assisted a supervising solicitor in making made formal representations to the court, and as a result, her case was dropped. “I am so incredibly thankful for all your help and support this past weeks, I don’t know what I would have done without you” she wrote to tell the students.
And when Peter (not his real name) came to the clinic to ask for advice about a case of his that had been closed, the team took up the baton for him and argued that the case should be reopened on a point of law. The court agreed with the students and Peter was elated, writing: “I just wanted to write and say thank you so much for yesterday and being so lovely. Honestly don’t know what I would have done otherwise.”
For the students too, providing legal advice, under supervision from tutors and lawyers, has been a rewarding experience. Dora Castro (pictured) - a student volunteer at a Citizens Advice bureau in Crawley, who received dedicated training with them through the University’s project - spoke about what it meant to her:
“Working for Citizen Advice has been a great experience as I had the opportunity to help people and get to know the real issues out there that are affecting people's lives.
“I learnt that we all at some point in our lives will need Citizen Advice, the work that the volunteers do every day changes people's lives and that is priceless. The project has taught me to be analytic, to think outside the box, to ask the right questions, to be patient and above all to never judge. I hope that the people I advised felt better and more confident after an interview or phone conversation. I do believe that knowledge is power and as future lawyers, we need a society that is well informed so they can also fight for their rights.”
Jason Mather from Central & South Sussex Citizens Advice spoke glowingly of the student volunteers: “We have a group of amazing Sussex University students who have been working with us as part of the Clinical Legal Education Programme within the Law School. To date they have helped 722 people in West Sussex with some very complex, challenging problems. The students have done a brilliant job and are great ambassadors for Sussex University.”
Among the 722 people helped at the Citizens Advice clinic this academic year were 532 complex cases. On other projects, students helped 82 people without their own legal representation for example by explaining paperwork or taking notes for them (known as the CLOCK project).
Forty-eight people were helped with family law issues, and 19 people were helped with employment problems. The students helped 20 people with housing issues and nine people with criminal justice challenges.
Students working on the criminal justice clinic also assisted the Prisoners’ Advice Service with five cases, and worked with the campaign group Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association (JENGbA) on two cases.
The Sussex Clinical Legal Education programme was started by Dr Amir Paz-Fuchs in 2016 and it has already become one of the most comprehensive free legal advice clinics anywhere.
Dr Amir Paz-Fuchs says: “University of Sussex law students have been helping some of the most vulnerable people in their local community tackle what are often traumatic life circumstances.
“Pro bono legal clinics play a vital role in communities. And from the response we’ve had so far, it’s clear there is a need for the type of help and guidance we can offer.”
The Sussex Clinical Legal Education projects will re-open in September.