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Grimes, R --- "Legal Literacy, Community Empowerment and Law Schools Some Lessons from a Working Model in the UK" [2004] LegEdDig 4; (2004) 12(3) Legal Education Digest 6

Legal Literacy, Community Empowerment and Law Schools — Some Lessons from a Working Model in the UK

R Grimes

[2004] LegEdDig 4; (2004) 12(3) Legal Education Digest 6

37 Law Teacher 3, 2003, pp 273–284

In its simplest form Street Law is public legal education in interactive form. The people delivering Street Law can be trained teachers, practising lawyers or enthusiastic law students. In the USA, Street Law has been used in a wide range of institutions and has been running for over 30 years. Street Law in the UK is less developed but recent events have led to a significant amount of interest in the concept.

Over the past three years the College of Law has pioneered an extensive Street Law program in the UK. A key component in the UK Street Law initiatives puts the law student in the position of teacher. Providing the student input is supervised to a professional standard, this provides a wide range of potential benefits.

The Street Law approach to learning has several advantages. It gives students the opportunity to become actively involved in their learning. It supports study elsewhere in the law curriculum at the ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ stages — reinforcing learning through application and reflection. It directly addresses lawyering and transferable skills, notably research, problem solving, communication, drafting and team work. It increases awareness of rights and responsibilities for both students and targeted community groups. It forges links between the law school and the wider community. It can provide an opportunity for academics, practitioners, students and members of the local community to work in partnership to increase the understanding of law and the legal process. It can generate wider community involvement through the identification of projects for further work — a practical manifestation of community empowerment.

The desirability of higher levels of legal literacy amongst the community as a whole is a worthwhile starting point in the promotion of a clearer understanding of rights and responsibilities. If the public are better informed, they may more effectively access entitlements and comply with obligations, thereby encouraging active citizenship. This is the objective of those Street Law programs that are law school-led, whereby law students meet with the community group in question to identify topics for study and then research and prepare for delivery of the relevant material.

For a variety of reasons the public may be unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable with taking a lead role in determining what the Street Law sessions should cover. Once the community is engaged, such programs become responsive to perceived need and effective in terms of attracting wider participation. As an educational tool, Street Law is particularly suitable for undergraduate law and non-law graduates who are studying basic concepts of law. Taking students into the community to deliver interactive material on rights and responsibilities provides the big picture.

The College of Law has moved from one-off presentations to short courses that carry credit for participants who complete the program successfully. It has also developed project-based work, in accordance with which students prepare and deliver a presentation and then support participants in following up on their subsequent interests.

Some law schools already offer, or plan to make available, Street Law as part of the curriculum, usually as an elective for second and/or third year students, while it may also be offered as extracurricular activity. The experience at the College of Law is that a Street Law program catering for up to 200 students and spread over one academic year will need the equivalent of one full-time supervisor and at least part-time administrative assistance.

The expense of running a Street Law program can of course be met in a variety of ways — by ‘hard’ money, by ‘soft’ funding, by a combination of the two or by reliance, in whole or part, on help in some other form. Given the current financial state of many higher education institutions, however, it is probable that consideration will have to be given to some external resourcing in cash or kind.

Street Law is highly popular with the public, students and with law school management. This can be a mixed blessing. College of Law Street Law programs are generally oversubscribed and failure to get a place can cause disappointment. The work involved in Street Law is considerable and, although students are invariably delighted to have been involved, there can be complaints when the deadlines for preparation and delivery approach. Obvious times to avoid are assessment pressure points. Understandably, students often have limited experience of teaching and may need considerable support in the initial stages of preparation. Working with the community can present particular challenges. This is law for real, with the implicit need for a professional standard of delivery. Perhaps the biggest challenge is managing expectations — both the community’s and the students’.

The College’s experience over the past three years of ‘doing’ Street Law has been positive. There are now some genuine opportunities to forge partnership between law schools, government, the not for profit sector and the wider public. What began as a pilot with school pupils in Derby is about to take off as a country-wide initiative involving many participants — from laws schools and law students to secondary schools; and from law students to pupils, prisoners and the wider community.

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