The real experience

19 April 2005

Legal eagles: Bev Bird of the Legal Aid Clinic with some of the record number students working at the clinic.

A record number of students have enrolled with UCT's Legal Aid Clinic to hone their litigation skills while helping the community.

Numbers have quadrupled now that working at the Legal Aid Clinic counts as a credit towards law degrees. Enrolment this year stands at 52 - up from 13 and 14 students in 2004 and 2003, respectively. The jump in numbers has occurred in three years since the elective course Legal Aid and Legal Practice formally replaced what previously amounted to voluntary assistance.

The experience shows the value of practice-based teaching as more and more students opt for the "hands-on" experience of legal practice provided by the clinic. The growth in numbers is proof of the popularity of an opportunity to "practice" law in a "real" rather than theoretical setting - and earn credits towards a degree at the same time.

Students, most in their final year of law studies, but including some intermediates, assist the Legal Aid Clinic's five full-time attorneys and one trainee attorney in providing legal assistance to members of indigent communities around Cape Town.

The clinic targets different sections of greater Cape Town's poorer communities in different years. This year the areas are Elsies River, Athlone and Retreat. Consultations are held in the evenings, with the students and attorneys travelling into the community to consult with clients. The clinic's services are advertised in community spaces such as libraries and community centres. For clients, access is based on a means test.

Legal assistance is confined to civil matters, with students assisting in divorce, eviction, motor accidents and breach of contract cases. Students are not permitted to appear in court, and they are closely supervised by qualified attorneys. Nonetheless, the work gives them a feel for the job.

The initiative means that people who would not otherwise be able to afford it have access to justice, while the students are able to experience the practice of law as they would in a legal firm, explained Bev Bird, acting director of the clinic.

"It's a win-win situation for both clients and students."

She and her colleagues are "most excited" about the enthusiastic response to the practical elective, which has brought new energy to the clinic. Bird measures the level of student enthusiasm by the declaration: "I love this clinic!", which she overheard a student make only three weeks into the start of the year.

Further proof of their success is the fact that students who have chosen electives at the Legal Aid Clinic during the past two years have generally achieved extremely good grades in all their other law subjects, and have received excellent placements in legal firms upon graduating.

A component of the Legal Aid Clinic's work that is lesser known, but no less important in the community, is the legal work done among refugees.

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