For our fifteenth Connecting Legal Education session we were very fortunate to be joined by three guest speakers, all of whom focused upon how academics and students can have an impact upon the world beyond the University.
Our first guest was Professor Nick Hopkins, Law Commissioner for Property, Family and Trust Law and Professor of Law at the University of Reading. Nick began by reflecting upon the mutually beneficial relationship which exists between the Law Commission and academia. Nick emphasised that the Commission benefits from relationships with academics and their research at all stages of each law reform project, including through academics responding to consultations, holding conferences and other events which serve as a valuable testing ground for the Law Commission’s proposals, and working as part of advisory groups.
Empirical studies were also referenced as one way in which academics could inform the work of the Law Commission, although it was noted that these are often so long in lifespan that it can be a challenge for them to begin at the same time as a new project and finish in time to inform the final proposals. For this reason, it was suggested that anyone interested in undertaking empirical work which could inform the work of the Commission should, for example, ‘horizon scan’: consider what could and should be on the agenda of the Commission and how empirical work might usefully feed into that.
Get in touch
Nick was particularly keen to encourage people to contact the Law Commission with their ideas for areas which they think should be looked at – perhaps on the basis of emerging themes within their research – or in response to existing proposals which their work fits with. He advised anyone contacting the Commission in this way to be specific about how the research fits with what the Commission is doing at the moment, and what they might do in the future. There was a question from our audience about the next Programme of Law Reform: Nick explained that the Commission is taking the first steps towards planning for the14th Programme of Law Reform, although the timetable for consultation was dependent upon a continued recovery from COVID-19. He advised audience members to look at uncommenced projects in the 13th Programme of Law Reform, under which there remain opportunities to inform the Commission’s work.
In response to another question from the audience, Nick mentioned that the Commission had worked with a Doctoral student whose PhD happens to be closely related to an area of interest to the Commission, while also working with established and senior academics. Nick also mentioned that students sometimes respond to consultation papers, and that their engagement is always very welcome indeed: in sum, it was clear that the Commission values the opportunity to hear the views of a cross-section of academia.
The parameters of the Law Commission
Nick emphasised the independent nature of the Commission, which does not align itself with particular groups, organisations or individuals, but which will always gratefully receive research related to its reform proposals. Even where the Commission is not in agreement with the conclusions reached within that research (for example, about how a particular area of law might best be reformed), the research plays a vital role in testing the thinking of the Commissioners and therefore the robustness of the conclusions which they eventually draw.
In response to a question which drew comparisons between the Law Commission of England and Wales and that of Australia, Nick reiterated that the Commission cannot consider reform in an area without the agreement of the Minister with policy responsibility in that area: this is to ensure that public money is not used to undertake a piece of work in an area of law which the government is not interested in reforming, or in which it already has a set policy.
Policy clinics at Law School
Having had this thorough account of how academics in particular can influence law reform from Nick, our attention turned to how students – working together with academics – can impact upon policy and law reform in a different context. Rachel Dunn from Northumbria University’s Student Law Office and Liz Hardie from the Open University’s Open Justice Centre reflected upon their experiences of running policy clinics, in which students provide organisations (and occasionally also academics, in the case of Northumbria) with research reports in a specific area. We were given an overview of how the clinics work in terms of student involvement e.g. how they relate to modules and assessment, and then attention turned to why policy clinics are valuable to run.
Benefits and challenges
There was a huge amount of enthusiasm amongst the audience for this type of clinic and – listening to Rachel and Liz – it isn’t hard to see why: benefits include the fact they can (unlike more ‘traditional’ clinics) be run by academics who are not legally qualified; they offer organisations the chance to benefit from research which they would not have the time or other resources to undertake themselves; they offer students the opportunity to develop research skills in a practical setting; they can provide students with an insight into future employment opportunities they had perhaps never previously encountered or considered; and they offer students who do not necessarily want to have direct contact with clients (as would happen in a more ‘traditional’ clinic setting) the opportunity to nevertheless contribute in a valuable way through pro bono. This can make pro bono activities more inclusive of those who value being able to fit their volunteering around many pre-existing commitments e.g. young families, or whose mental health conditions make client contact personally challenging.
There are, of course, nevertheless some issues to consider prior to establishing a policy clinic, many of which will be familiar to anyone with experience of running any sort of pro bono activity at university! These include ensuring the students have the necessary skills set to undertake the research; staffing; time; and the recruitment of ‘clients’. For projects which involve empirical work time has to be factored in to receive ethical approval through the university’s processes, which can be a lengthy; and, for the Open University (but now, at least in the short-term, for the majority of universities!), the time which it takes to appropriately plan and deliver support for online collaboration must also be factored in. Nevertheless, there was genuine enthusiasm for this model, such that CLEO were contacted after the session and have agreed to support the formation of a loose network of people who are already working on policy clinics, or who wish to do so – please keep an eye out for further announcements about this via the CLEO network, and on future #ConnectingLegalEd sessions.
Finally, and with impeccable timing, an article about Northumbria’s Clinic – co-authored by Rachel – was published on the very day of the hangout: it is available here
Our 16th Connecting Legal Education session – taking place on 21st July at 1100 (BST) – will focus upon wellbeing within legal education (both students and staff) and the professions. We will hear from Caroline Strevens, Emma Jones, Richard Collier and Lydia Bleasdale about the launch of a new UK Wellness network; followed by Stella Coyle, who will be talking about engaging law students in wellbeing through mentimeter – another jam-packed session! Please do join us: as ever, if you wish to join the Teams space for this or other #ConnectLegalEd hangouts, please drop Michael Doherty (firstname.lastname@example.org), Lydia Bleasdale (email@example.com), or Emma Flint (E.E.Flint@bham.ac.uk) a line.