The Bulletin has been focusing recently on clinical legal education programmes at universities around Ireland. In this issue, we look at the Street Law module in place at the University of Ulster. PILA is grateful to Gráinne McKeever, Senior Lecturer in Law at Ulster for contributing this piece.
Clinical legal education has been part of the undergraduate degree programmes at the University of Ulster since 1999. Gráinne McKeever, a senior lecturer in the School of Law established the Street Law module, which puts final year undergraduate law students on placements in community, educational, and penal settings to provide legal education for placement participants. The module requires undergraduate students to work in pairs during their eight week placement, to develop and deliver a programme of legal education specific to their placement group. To date, placements have ranged from primary and post-primary schools, to community groups working with young people and ex-offenders, to juvenille justice facilities. As part of their assessment, students create a set of information leaflets that summarise the programme they have delivered and that can be used by the placement organisation as a future resource.
In addition to their placements, students can work with the University of Ulster's 'Science Shop' to complete a demand-led research project for a community organisation in Northern Ireland, requiring students to apply their legal knowledge to a range of real-life issues, and provide an agreed research output for the organisation. Past projects have included reviews of draft legislation on special educational needs for a number of children's charities, the provision of information on access to mental health provision for newly remanded young persons at a Young Offender's Centre in Northern Ireland, and an assessment of the value of restorative justice initiatives to those organisations participating in the initiatives.
The clinical programme at Ulster provides a unique learning experience for students, and has reinforced the Law School's approach to legal education, underlining the need to expand students' notions of what law is, and how they can contribute to society as lawyers of the future. The module is a final year option, and is competitively allocated when student demand exceeds the number of available placements. Students who take the module are extremely committed and student testimonials consistently highlight the advantages that Street law provides, in terms of developing both legal knowledge and personal skills:
"The experience of teaching children of a younger age about legal issues was daunting at first. However I feel that over the period of the module I adapted to the situations that I was faced with and that the children thoroughly enjoyed the lessons. It was something they felt was important to them. Many of the students had preconceptions about legal issues ... I was able to take these on board and provide them with a more accurate portrayal of the law in practice and theory." (Street Law graduate, 2010)
"The opportunity to engage directly with other members of the public on this module was also an extremely beneficial experience." (Street Law graduate, 2010)
"The benefit of [the Science Shop] project was that it was not constrained in the same manner as a typical essay and as such allowed us as students to engage in something we were interested and passionate about. It was also beneficial in that it provided a resource for any other people interested in the topic area or seeking advice or information about it. Unlike a normal essay it gave the opportunity for re-use of the project and I feel it was a very successful and enjoyable way of being evaluated." (Street Law graduate, 2010)
"[Street Law] was a different experience and presented challenges that I had never faced. These challenges were overcome each week and with each week I gained more confidence in my own skills. It has most certainly impacted on my skills of research, communication, public speaking, working as a team, organisation and many others. I would advise anyone with the opportunity to complete a module such as this to take it immediately. It has affected me beyond what I thought it would in the beginning and has provided me with invaluable skills and experience that I will use for many years to come throughout my career." (Street Law graduate, 2010)
The University of Ulster is committed to providing clinical legal education, which has been strongly supported at School and University level, and plans are currently being prepared to develop a clinical law programme at post-graduate level. The benefit to students is apparent, but it is also the case that the joy of teaching clinical law is of huge benefit to staff.