‘We were due to open an office in St David’s Station’ – Tia Matt talks about Exeter University’s  Community Law Clinic and the impact of Covid 19

I practised law in the United States and moved to Europe in 2010. We moved to Exeter in 2013: my husband is an astrophysicist here. I was always interested in teaching and got a post in the law department. 

A couple of us convinced the university to set up a law clinic – which we did in 2017. The university funded me to sit the qualified lawyers transfer test and so I qualified as a solicitor. That allowed us to move beyond providing information and signposting. And by 2018, we were providing full advice. We started with a general access to justice and a specialist immigration clinic. For immigration, we got the necessary approval from the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner and help from a solicitor at the University of Law and a member of Matrix barristers’ chambers. This is an area of work for which there is much need here but relatively few specialist practitioners. The work by the students,  in the immigration clinic, was all done under the supervision of lawyers who worked remotely. That experience helped us considerably when Covid 19 arrived.

We now have a range of different student clinics – access to justice (which covers, in particular, housing, benefits, employment, debt and, at the moment for some reason, a number of intestacy cases); exceptional case funding [for legal aid] (which we run in collaboration with the Public Law Project), immigration, environment (in partnership with the Environmental Law Foundation and is mainly about planning), insurance, wills and benefit appeals. On exceptional case funding (ECF), one of our challenges has been to get enough referrals. Quite often firms aren’t thinking of exceptional case funding as a possibility. So, we have spent a lot of time over the last year in telling solicitors about the possibilities of ECF. It can take as much as 30 hours preparation for an application to the Legal Aid Authority. We can offer this free to practitioners. Our students are really keen.

We were due to occupy premises owned by the University in the main station in Exeter, St David’s, earlier this year just when Covid 19 struck. They were renovating a former shop for us. It is a fantastic location, very central. But, when the pandemic arrived in March, the campus closed and the students largely went home. We had to tell our clients that we were pausing. We could not even collect our mail – which comes through the university.  Thankfully, we did not have any hearings planned. We paused completely for about 10 days. Our students went all over the world. Some were put into quarantine: some had no communication. We made a huge effort to wrap up our caseload. 

We took stock of where everyone was – in which countries and time zones. We partner students to work on cases. We had to work out where they both were. We have about 150 students in the clinic. Some are from the UK but others come from a range of countries including Canada, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, States, France and Germany. We had one partnership of two students, one of whom went back to China and the other to Canada: that was a challenge in terms of finding times when they could communicate with each other and us. 

We recognised that there might be delays in communication between students. We let our students know that we, as supervisors, could take over if necessary. We didn’t want them to feel responsible if they were sick or unavailable. We had a really good intern who really helped us to cope. And the clients have been amazing and very understanding. Just about of them all had email: some, we were able to phone. 

We had a lot of talk with the university about how we could operate. We needed extra hands on deck for supervision. The university funded us to hire a lawyer to help through the summer. We were able to get another intern. We spent time looking through what systems would be needed to work remotely. We had to decide whether we could actually continue. Once we decided that we could, we had to test out our systems. The University runs on Sharepoint. We moved everything into it. All our case management is there. This gives us extra protection as the university can help on technology. We have a clinic email through which all student emails go out to clients. We use Microsoft Teams and Zoom-based training and events – at times when most of the dispersed students can make. We use the breakout rooms in Zoom which are fantastic for smaller group training. All this allowed us to enlist some new students for the next cohort through the summer. Luckily, some of the old ones stayed on as well. We were able to pair up each new student with a veteran. This summer, because of the pandemic and cancellation of training contracts, a number of our former students remained available. 

We provide a robust structure to support the students. We have a clinic manual that details our expectations, processes, methods of triaging and what they are expected to do. We have training videos on various subjects –  like client interviewing. We can follow what the student have looked at. We have all the standard documents on templates that can be individualised. When a student has a call with a client, we have a supervisor present but (generally) silent. We protect the students by ensuring that all outgoing calls are anonymised and all emails go out from the clinic’s account.

We get most of our clients either because they directly email us or they are referred by an agency. Most have a computer and can use email, though we have one who does not and with whom we communicate by phone. One large practical complication is that the university is not distributing post at the moment. We have adapted to that. We get clients to take pictures of documents on their phone and then send them to us.

We actually have more clients at the moment than usual. As soon as we said we were open, we had 10 calls and 20 appointments. Normally, we take only 2-3 clients a week. Now we are easily taking on 10 a week. It is quite busy. Most of them are relatively simple cases. We have been getting through them fast. We had a nice success for a client who was being asked for £14,000 as interest on a loan. She had lots of proof that the money was given to her as a gift. And, that was eventually accepted.

We have proved that we can carry on remotely. We get quite a lot of clients out of our immediate area and remote communication quite suits them. And there are elements of remote working with the students which we will keep even when the Covid emergency dies down.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            

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