To mark Pro Bono Week, I caught up with Kayliegh Richardson, the Director of the award winning Northumbria University Student Law Office.
Thank you Kayliegh for providing such interesting insights into the operations and impact of the University pro bono legal clinic and the wider role played by clinical legal education for student education and Access to Justice in the UK.
The pro bono legal clinic provides free legal advice to the local community, an immersive learning experience for students and in the context of wider legal aid cuts, University, student and staff led legal clinics are rapidly becoming the service of last resort for many people seeking justice in the UK.
The UK is ranked 20th in terms of Civil Justice by the Global Justice Report, one place below Uruguay and a place above France. Denmark is ranked number 1, the United States is 41st and China is 74th. As the world’s 6th largest economy (although c.25th highest GDP per capita) and with our heritage as a legal jurisdiction, we should be doing better. More worrying is that the UK’s ranking has fallen from 13th since 2015, a time period which has seen massive changes to Legal Aid and Access to Justice in the UK. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) introduced funding cuts to legal aid (https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/en/topics/legal-aid/laspo-act).
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Paul Massey (00:03):
Hi Kayliegh. Thanks very much for joining us today. It will be great to hear more about you and your background and involvement with Northumbria University Student Law Clinic.
Kayliegh Richardson (00:20):
My background with the Law Clinic originally started in 2007 when I was a student at the University and I did the student law office module myself. After university I went on to practice at Ward Hadaway Solicitors in Newcastle, and I qualified as a family lawyer. It then came full circle that I came back to the University as an academic member of staff. And then just this September, I’ve taken over from Paul McKeown as student law office director.
Paul Massey (00:56):
So do you know the history of the student law office and when it was founded and what the driving force behind that was?
Kayliegh Richardson (01:06):
At Northumbria, students giving legal advice actually dates back to the 1980s. So a long, long time ago, but in the eighties it was more students going out to external organisations and providing drop-in advice with those organizations. The clinic in its current form started in the early 1990s – it was ‘93 or ‘94, there’s a bit of debate over that. That’s really when we brought everything in-house and it was taking inspiration from some of the famous law clinics in the U.S. So for example, the Harvard Law Clinic. We brought everything in house and that’s when students on the degree programme were able to start offering legal advice in an internal setting to members of the community. And it’s just grown exponentially since then with how many students we involve and how many cases we take on.
Paul Massey (02:14):
Do you have the numbers to hand of how big the Clinic is now and how it helps the community?
Kayliegh Richardson (02:23):
Every year we have between 200 and 300 students that come into the clinic to provide advice. Now as always with these kinds of services, and I’m sure we’ll have a bit more of a discussion about this in a moment, the demand still far exceeds what we can offer. I pulled up the stats for 2019 to 2020, and we had about a thousand enquiries, nearly a thousand enquiries that came through the office in that year. And we were able to help just over a quarter of them. So in terms of the demand, the demand is out there, but also as a single service, we can’t meet it. But we are still doing quite a lot and I would say each year, it’s somewhere between 250 and 300 people that we’re helping
Paul Massey (03:17):
What are the kind of areas that you help people with in the community?
Kayliegh Richardson (03:25):
Loads of different areas. We do Business and Commercial. We do family law, crime, which is largely criminal appeals, housing, welfare benefits. This is really testing me now – wills and probate, general civil, which can be obviously a whole host of different things from your washing machine’s broken down, to you having a terrible holiday to criminal injuries compensation. And employment law as well.
Paul Massey (04:01):
Many of your cases will be confidential, but are there any particular case studies that you can point towards where you’ve helped specific people on legal problems they’ve had?
Kayliegh Richardson (04:13):
Obviously we can’t go into too much detail about them, but we do have some anonymized case studies on our website that people can view. We’ve helped people with discrimination claims where they have been, for example, unfairly dismissed from their employment for a discriminatory issue, such as pregnancy. We’ve helped people obtain emergency injunctions in domestic abuse cases and sort out the housing issues off the back of that. Lots of private children issues where people are being prevented from having contact with their children and some major criminal appeals as well. So a whole whole host of lots of different things.
Paul Massey (04:57):
Amazing work. Have you found the volume of demand has changed since changes in legal aid have come in? How has that affected the Clinic?
Kayliegh Richardson (05:09):
Yes, so I am a family lawyer by background, as I mentioned before, I was in practice when LASPO was introduced and I then came over to the Clinic. And we certainly saw an increase in areas like family, where legal aid was previously available. For instance, as I just mentioned, people are being prevented from seeing their children and they can’t get legal aid anymore, so that they’re turning to organizations like us because the government thinks that they can represent themselves, but obviously in emotionally driven cases, that’s easier said than done. So a massive increase in areas like family, housing, welfare and we’re sort of the last resort. So they might be sent around the houses to lots of different organizations and they very quickly realise [they] can’t afford the services of a privately paid solicitor, so they come to us and we see if we can help them on a pro bono basis.
Paul Massey (06:13):
Do you now think the University Legal Clinics are playing quite an important role in the overall makeup of Access to Justice for a lot of people in the UK? Obviously Northumbria is a leading clinic but there are many more throughout the UK.
Kayliegh Richardson (06:30):
Yes, so we were the first established legal clinic in the UK, but as you mentioned, there’s loads now that followed suit and we’ve actually helped set some of those up. I do think they are playing a big part, particularly in areas like family law. I think law firms do what they can and quite a lot of law firms will offer things like a free 30 minute appointment or some pro bono advice. But as we see from the amount of enquiries that we have to reject because we’re full, people are turning to our Clinics quite often, and I have quite a lot of connections with Support Through Court (https://www.supportthroughcourt.org/) as well and they obviously see a lot of the people that we can’t help, where actually they can’t get access through pro bono clinics, so they’re then going to Support Through Court to do the process themselves, but with a little bit of support from a volunteer there holding their hand through the process.
Paul Massey (07:29):
So it sounds like both an amazing opportunity for students and also quite a, quite a responsibility. So logistically how does the Clinic work? The students are obviously not qualified solicitors, so how do you give them the exposure while making sure that legal advice is sound?
Kayliegh Richardson (07:46):
It’s pretty onerous because they’re operating under our practicing certificates. So everything they do has to be very, very closely supervised. And that’s the trade off for people, that they can come to our clinic and they can get pro bono legal advice and assistance, but they have to be aware that that is being carried out by students. And so the process is likely to be a lot slower than what they would get in private practice. We always say the quality is the same. We strive for a really high quality, but it’s just going to be slower. And so it’s not unusual for a letter of advice to have to go through three or four drafts before it’s ready to go to the clients and all of that needs to be approved by the supervisor, overseeing the students. So it’s incredibly onerous. And it’s a big investment from the University and we’re really lucky at Northumbria that they have heavily financially invested in the Clinic – both in terms of setting up, staff costs of running it, and then also investing in things like the case management system.
Paul Massey (08:56):
We can hopefully get on to talking about that a little bit later, but I’m keen to explore the benefits for the students a little bit more. Obviously with all this investments, what are the benefits for the students and how are those benefits measured and realized by the university?
Kayliegh Richardson (09:20):
Well, that’s the other part of when we decide whether we’re taking on cases. So any case that we take on has to have an educational benefit to the student. So that’s one of the things that we’re looking at when we’re deciding whether to accept a client. I know some clinics do means testing, or a financial test. We don’t do that, but what we do look at is what educational benefit will the students get from the case. The way I talk to students about it is, I say, how do you know if you want to be a lawyer, unless you actually have a go at it? That’s the big selling point, is everything they’ve learned over their first two years (because we now do the Clinic in year three of the law degree), they then get to put into practice in year three.
So it is a big jump up for them and they do learn skills over the first two years, but then they actually put it into practice. They see whether that is something they would want it to do as a career. And also it’s the best way for them to learn skills. You can hypothetically talk about how important interviews are and how important client care is, but there’s nothing like the unpredictability or a real client. You really don’t know what you’re getting when they walk through the door. I think it’s an incredibly important part of their degree programme.
Paul Massey (10:45):
Definitely. And do students get to see cases through from start to finish and actually provide that advice through to when a case goes to course as well? I know that some University legal clinics stay a little bit less hands-on than that, but how do you work in that way?
Kayliegh Richardson (11:04):
It really depends on the case and what it would be suitable for us to do and how close the court hearings are as to whether the students have the time to fully prepare for them. But we’re certainly not an advice only clinic. We have offered representation on quite a number of cases. I’ve personally taken students to court with me on cases such as the one that I mentioned before, where we applied for an emergency injunction in a domestic abuse case. So we do certainly offer representation where it would be appropriate to offer representation.
Paul Massey (11:40):
I was going to ask what the challenges are to running a legal clinic at a University, but I think you have touched on that already a little bit. So I was wondering what would be your advice to any University legal departments thinking of setting up a legal clinic? What would the steps be they need to go through and some of the challenges to overcome?
Kayliegh Richardson (12:03):
So it is going to require some financial investment, but what I would say is start small. We certainly started small. We started, as I mentioned, working with external organizations and there are external organizations that would be really open to that. So for example, we’ve got a module for our postgraduate LPC students where we team up with another law firm in the community, Ben Hoare Bell, and the students will carry out some legal advice under the supervision of their solicitors. So there’s certainly ways around it where it’s not initially such a big onerous task. And then once you’ve got that in place, you can work up slowly to a larger clinic and it’s about selling that to your institution. If you can start small and work your way up then over time, obviously you can encourage them to invest a little bit more in the clinic.
Paul Massey (13:00):
Sounds good. And I guess invest in things like legal technology and case management systems, which is why we Tabled are working with Northumbria Law Clinic.
How do you see technology impacting how legal advice is provided and managed in the future?
Kayliegh Richardson (13:22):
Obviously a lot of firms have moved towards using some element of AI and it may be getting initial information from clients. I do think there is a place for that, but I do think there’s also going to be always a place for people. AI certainly can’t replicate things like empathy very well anyway. And people will like to have interaction with people, but where I see the big benefits of technology is in things like case management systems. And I think we all learn a lot of lessons from the pandemic. We really were not prepared in the slightest. We were a completely paper-based office. And so we really struggled when the pandemic hit and when our office closed in terms of being able to get access to those files and to be able to run things from home.
Kayliegh Richardson (14:17):
I think in the world post pandemic, firms need to be able to offer their employees more flexibility. People want to be able to potentially work from home part of the time. They need to be able to access files and they need to be able to access case management systems from home. And also clients might want to do virtual meetings. So things like Zoom / Teams are more of the norm now. People still don’t feel that safe coming into offices. And I think we’re leaning more towards technology and using that as an advantage to be prepared when things like this happen, so that cases aren’t disrupted. And I think the courts have learned the same thing because obviously initially particularly the family and the criminal courts had to stop running hearings. At first, everything was brought to a standstill and that has obviously led to a backlog that we are all hearing a lot about at the moment. They very quickly had to get the video platforms and their own case management systems up and running. I think we’ve all learned our lesson now and realised that we need all of these systems in place.
Paul Massey (15:31):
We at Tabled are very pleased to be working with Northumbria Law Clinic, providing a case management system. It would be good to know what you looked for in a case management system and any particular requirements for the pro bono legal clinic sector that you were looking for. Not to blow our own trumpet too much, but why did you end up choosing Tabled?
Kayliegh Richardson (16:02):
It was important for us to get a case management system because the whole idea of our clinic, and it being an educational setting, is that it prepares students as much as possible for life in practice. And now most law firms have a case management system. Many, many law firms have gone completely paperless. And so us working with paper files just seemed we weren’t preparing the students properly for practice and what to expect. So we wanted to give them that authentic experience that would prepare them. That’s why we went looking for a case management system. What particularly we wanted was we didn’t want the students to have to spend months training on the system. We didn’t want it to be an over-complicated product. We didn’t particularly need some features that law firms might have like stop clocks for time recording and things like that.
We just needed something that was very accessible and had the students in mind with how the tasks would be run. We needed staff to be able to have a slightly different view to students, because students should only be able to see their own cases. So that was a really important thing for us that you might not get in some of the case management systems. So there had to be the flexibility to lock certain parts of the system down just for staff use.
But the main thing was just being an accessible, easy to use system. And that’s one of the reasons why we went for Tabled. It was cost-effective, but it also did the job without over-complicating processes. We’ve all had our training on it now and the students have all had their training on it and they very quickly got to grips with the different features without having to spend weeks on end training them.
Paul Massey (18:07):
Brilliant. That’s great to hear great feedback and we’re certainly enjoying partnering with you in the clinic and that will hopefully go on for years to come and we can continue building features for you. There are those unique requirements of a pro-bono clinic that it is great to be able to support alongside the whole Access to Justice movement.
I didn’t have any other questions. Is there anything burning that you wanted to say that I haven’t asked you about perhaps?
Kayliegh Richardson (18:34):
I think obviously one of the big benefits we’ve had working with you is the time that you spent learning about what we needed and what we didn’t need. Because it is a little bit of both. And also how quickly you’ve been able to adapt the case management system to the different features that we’ve said we need as time goes on. Because I don’t think we necessarily knew a hundred percent what we needed in the beginning.
As we started trying out the system, we’ve said, it’d be quite useful to have this added on or it would be quite useful if you could remove this function for students. And every single time we’ve made those requests, it’s been actioned really quickly. And that’s what we’ve needed because it’s been a really speedy start to the year. So it’s been great that you’ve been able to take on that feedback and adapt the system for us rather than just saying, well, here’s a rigid system that you’re stuck with.
Paul Massey (19:32):
Brilliant. Well I’m glad it’s working so far. And as I say, very much looking forward to supporting the staff and students in the future. So thanks very much. Kayliegh has been super interesting and we’ll round things off there.
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