Fighting for access to justice

Access to legal aid to help those unable to pay for services has never been more difficult. Statistics from The Law Society show a significant rise in court backlogs and people representing themselves across Essex and Suffolk in the last five years.

Essex Law Clinic has stepped in to bridge this gap, with students and staff offering free legal support and advice to those most in need.

Each year, the Clinic has been able to provide access to justice for the community; securing housing for those living on the streets, supporting successful visa applications for people facing deportation and even winning settlements for clients battling employment disputes.

What is the Essex Law Clinic?

Essex Law Clinic launched in 2008 and is now made up of an army of more than 200 student volunteers working on real-life cases, as well as investigating miscarriages of justice.

Clinic students work on various projects serving the community whilst being trained in professional skills to enable them to undertake client case work.

The Essex Law Clinic's goal is to deliver justice to the local community by giving law students an invaluable opportunity to provide free, professional legal advice and assistance to those who most need it.

The outcome? Free assistance is available to the public, while students receive the ultimate real-life legal experience that will set them up to be at the forefront of a new generation of lawyers equipped and motivated to help those most in need. 

Whilst the Clinic’s core purpose is to provide free legal advice and assistance, it also partners with local organisations to deliver outreach projects in the community, and provide education about the law.

Its goal is to help people learn how they can avoid problems arising in the first place, or have the knowledge to take action and resolve any issues they experience themselves.

The Clinic hopes this will give people the confidence to advocate for justice, lead campaigns to change the law, and investigate social injustices, while also inspiring law students to carry on working for social justice once they graduate.

"Law clinics are recognised for their value, not only to the community at large, but to each new generation of lawyers. The Essex Law Clinic strives to uphold the best social justice and educational objectives of the global clinical movement."

Professor Donald Nicholson OBE
Essex Law Clinic Director

Bringing services to the community

The Clinic’s family law services have expanded into schools in recent years, with students and staff supervisors meeting with parents to advise them on law issues in an attempt to resolve problems or prevent conflict. 

As well as sharing expertise to community groups through presentations, students have also developed resources for schools to disseminate to parents to help them communicate about family law issues.

The services offered to families by the Clinic aim to provide positive outcomes and resolutions to disputes, and ensure the welfare of those involved is prioritised above all else.

Acting director Liz Fisher-Frank received special recognition for her work in 2023, when she was highly commended in the Community Interaction category of the Lexis Nexis Family Law Awards.

Liz said: "Our community partnerships remain a core focus, ensuring a collaborative approach to further aid student learning whilst providing a crucial access to justice role to the public.

"Demand for family law services remains consistently high and working with grass roots organisations to help people access advice is hugely important to the Clinic and the students."

In 2024, the Clinic launched new weekly clinics from the One Colchester Community Hub in Long Wyre Street.

The new initiative which forms part of a collaboration with Community360, means the Clinic is able to reach more people who would otherwise struggle to attend face-to-face meetings at the University of Essex's Colchester Campus.

“Liz and the team are literally changing lives and we at Next Chapter are extremely grateful for all that they do.”

Nicola Taylor, Community DAP Service Manager at Next Chapter

Clinic partner

Helping those on the brink

Access to free legal aid has never been more important at a time when the cost-of-living crisis has made access to services even more difficult.

The Clinic has been able to support some of the most vulnerable in north Essex, who find themselves trying to navigate unfamiliar legal processes and systems.

As part of its work on immigration, which is led by Dr Olayinka Lewis, the Clinic has been able to provide invaluable advice and support to people facing deportation at the worst possible time.

This included obtaining pre-settled status for two homeless migrants with severe mental health issues and for one suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome.

Another case saw it secure settled status for a family of four and a single parent facing imminent removal while suffering domestic abuse.

“I am now undergoing mediation armed with the detailed advice I received from the Law Clinic.

"I have also applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain via the ten-year family route as advised and my application was successful.

"I can only say thank you for such a brilliant and free service.”

Client feedback

Making a difference

The Clinic has partnered up with a number of charities and organisation across the region in a bid to reach more people.

As part of its Housing and Homelessness project, run by Lucy Davies, the Clinic has been working with Colchester-based charity Beacon House to provide vital legal support to its users, who find themselves without a roof over their heads.

In a single year, this partnership saw Essex students and staff support and advise 31 clients directly on housing and family law issues.

Most impressively, they helped overturn local authority decisions and secured emergency housing in at least a further 12 cases. 

Michele Wilkinson, a nurse practitioner at Beacon House, said: “It’s been such a boost having like-minded, motivated people who get homeless people, who actually see them for their potential and not for the name or the tag.

"They see them as a person, not as a homeless person and actually see them as having value in society and having the same rights.  

“The Clinic has the same desire to change lives and the same feeling to solve injustice where they see it.”    

“I was facing homelessness with a disabled daughter, and my eldest sitting their GCSE.

"Seeking legal advice wasn’t an option as a single, working parent.

"I was very grateful for the advice and support Essex Law Clinic gave.”

Client feedback

Essex Law Clinic in numbers

The Clinic is taking on increasing numbers of cases each year.

There was a 22.5% rise in case numbers between 2021-22 and 2022-23 alone, with the total each year now approaching 300.

Housing and family law are among the most frequent cases looked at by the Clinic.

Other areas include employment, immigration, welfare benefits, personal injury, and wills and succession.

Feedback from clients who used the Clinic during the 2022-23 year was extremely positive, with the vast majority giving the service offered to them a top rating.

"I received invaluable advice that I wish I'd received years ago.

"In my last court visit, I walked in calm, collected and full of confidence. I represented myself, knew what I wanted - and won.

"I feel I'm really listened to and the advice given is really personal and appropriate, it is also always calm and reassuring."

Client feedback

The student experience

While the work of the Clinic has a direct impact on the community, it also unleashes the next generation of lawyers, allowing them to gain real-world experience alongside learning different aspects of law.

And this real-world experience comes in many forms, not just face-to-face meetings with clients.

Working on public education initiatives and campaigning for legal changes are just some of the different aspects on offer to students.

One partnership with Sequentus, which helps aspiring lawyers work towards qualifications, has seen students support investigations into miscarriages of justice alongside legal experts, helping to review cases of those who claim to have been wrongly convicted of a crime.

Another collaboration with the charity Colchester Centre for Action on Rape and Abuse (CARA) has included the preparation of short legal advice guides on a range of relevant topics including access to justice, children and employment, and vulnerable women.

These guides have then been explained to CARA staff by the students through training sessions and workshops.

What the students say

Sam Howlett

Student director 2020/21

“The work the students do at the Clinic is just so important to the individual clients they serve, and the surrounding community.

"Every single experience in the Clinic has given me valuable skills that will be useful in my future career – from communication and leadership skills, to research and interviewing skills. My time here has undoubtedly meant I will be a better lawyer in the future.”

Ben O'Connell

Student director 2022/23

"There simply aren't enough words for me to sum up everything I've learned.

“From skill acquisition and development, letter writing, client handling skills, interview techniques, addressing client concern, working with teams of students and staff. I genuinely feel this experience has set me up to succeed no matter what I choose to do next."

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