When Rachel Stalker set up the School of Law’s Legal Advice Centre around the time of cuts to the funding of legal aid, it was hardly surprising that the Centre’s appointment book filled up in no time at all. Four years later, Rachel is put in an awkward position between wanting to promote the Centre but also not wanting to be inundated and having to turn people away. Word of mouth is primarily what the Centre relies on for its clients, but when free legal advice is hard to come by, word is going to get around pretty easily.
Run by student volunteers from LJMU’s School of Law and supervised by volunteer solicitors from leading Liverpool law firms, the Centre advises on cases involving family law, civil litigation, employment law and wills and administration – it’s open to students, staff and the general public. Dual purpose, the Centre benefits law students by providing the practical legal skills and client experience they need to pursue their careers, while servicing the community by offering free legal advice. Despite the best efforts of local solicitors offering pro bono work and many specialist third sector agencies and charities, affordable legal services are lacking in Liverpool and in many other cities across the UK. Rachel explains the catalyst and its resulting impact:
“The cuts to legal aid have had a major knock on effect in many different ways. The number of people going to court unrepresented has rocketed: even within a year of the cuts coming into effect, 80% of all family court cases starting included at least one party that did not have legal representation. People find the court process complex so cases go on for longer, which costs everyone more money. People’s physical and mental health suffers as a result of their legal issues not being dealt with and it is likely that the NHS and other welfare initiatives are picking up the tab.”
Lack of representation and a rise in associated health issues combined with people’s general lack of understanding about their legal rights makes advice clinics like the one run by Rachel and her team of students and solicitors more important than ever.
“Studies have shown that the general population is legally disempowered and disengaged. One study in 2015 said that only 6% of people seek advice for their legal issues.”
The Legal Advice Centre offers a practical roadmap to clients. Following an appointment, students research the client's issue – every individual’s case is unique – and provide detailed written advice in plain English within 14 days. This helps the client understand whether there is a case to pursue and what are the next steps. Wherever possible, they are given advice on where they can obtain further free support. Clients leave the Centre with a sense of relief and reassurance that they have finally had the law translated for them.
So after four successful years, where does the Centre go from here? Rachel says there are plans to expand with an in-house family solicitor which will allow them to do more outreach work with local community groups, involving drop-in clinics and public legal education. They plan to offer support to clients whose first language is not English since current clinic volunteers speak 16 different languages to a bilingual level. Plus there are ambitious plans to work collaboratively with LJMU computer scientists to explore ways that artificial intelligence can be developed and used for the provision of legal advice in both the Centre and the professional education of law students. Rachel explains:
“Jobs which used to require a lot of leg work, for example, trainee lawyers spending three weeks physically going through papers, can now be completed by AI in a matter of hours. The Centre is looking at ways that we might automate advice, so resources are maximised. This is the world that the students are qualifying into and I want them to be learning skills such as programming to be even better prepared for the future.”
What some of our students think of volunteering at the Legal Advice Centre:
"Having the experience of interviewing a real client and taking responsibility for their case and their advice letter is not something that would typically be experienced when doing work experience in a practice. I feel that this has definitely made myself more employable as firms are giving priority to candidates with more experience."
"The opportunity to work with real people and feel that you are benefiting those who otherwise might not have access to the legal system is incredibly rewarding."
"I appreciated that there was a need for pro bono, however I didn't realise the number of individuals seeking this. As many individuals either did not know whether they had a legal claim or believed they had legal rights which they did not have. I also didn't realise the amount of legal practitioners who volunteer their time for pro bono work which is something that I will strive to do myself in the future."
"I felt volunteering at the clinic drastically improved my learning abilities and confidence within the law school. It provided me with fantastic work experience opportunities and challenges which I thoroughly enjoyed. The clinic helped me attain a new work opportunity; I was shortlisted from many applicants and believe it was the work at the clinic that made them choose me."
If you have a legal issue that you’d like to discuss, you can make an appointment with the Legal Advice Centre.