M'learned friend, the undergraduate

Law students are gaining experience by acting, free of charge, for real clients. Robert Verkaik reports
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The Independent Online
W hen Michael George, an unemployed plumber, wanted legal help he found he had no one to turn to. Ineligible for legal aid, Mr George could not afford a solicitor to sue the manufacturer of a badly made three- piece suite that he had bought. Finally, at the end of his tether and after hearing a rumour about good Samaritan law students who take cases for free, he contacted his local college.

The University of Plymouth's law faculty operates a Free Representation Unit (FRU), which allows final-year law students to act for clients who do not qualify for legal aid. Plymouth is one of only three universities in the country to provide such a service.

"If the college hadn't come to the rescue," says Mr George, 48, "I was going to demonstrate outside the church where I know the man who made the furniture worships."

Last year Plymouth students won pounds 320,000 for their clients by providing legal services ranging from basic letter-writing to representing clients at tribunals. The unit even handled 12 cases involving women naval employees who had alleged that the Ministry of Defence had sexually discriminated against them because they were pregnant.

This year the unit's director, Jeanette Stapleton, says the service is so busy that long queues of students seeking advice on the next moves in their cases are frequently seen outside her office.

Mr George says he is very impressed with the professional way in which the students are dealing with his claim. But the law can be a slow business and Tanya Cobb, 23, and Catherine Williams, 25, are the second "firm" of students looking after Mr George's case. The first set left the unit when they graduated last year.

"It does take more time because I have had to explain my case all over again. But they are very thorough. I think that even if I had the money, I'd still use the students rather than proper solicitors," says Mr George.

All 28 FRU students have to serve on the unit's free legal advice clinic, which is in one of the city's most deprived areas. "This is the sort of experience they won't even get when they become professional lawyers," says Ms Stapleton, a senior law lecturer.

There are around 16,000 unemployed people in Plymouth and, according to Ms Stapleton, there are no law centres in the city to cater for them. "Many of the solicitor firms actually refer clients on to us," she says. But she warns: "We have to be very careful where education stops and we just become another extra community service. Our primary aim is the education of the students." Participation in FRU is now a module in the LLB degree.

The FRU students' appearance is important: whether interviewing clients or appearing in tribunals, they must look like lawyers. Catherine Williams remembers a mock client-interview in which she was wearing a smart black skirt and white blouse but still hadn't changed her Doc Martens boots: "Jeanette saw them under the table and told me this year I couldn't wear them for the real thing."

But the experience these budding Perry Masons get in trying out their advocacy skills for the first time is proving invaluable. Many FRU students have gone on to take jobs in top solicitors' firms and barristers' chambers.

Nicholas Taylor and Howard Womersly-Smith, both 21, are already old hands, with several appearances in front of tribunals to their credit. They have had to argue against managing directors, experienced solicitors and even barristers.

"One or two of the tribunal chairmen know we're students and try to test us by asking questions to see if we will crumble," says Mr Womersly- Smith. "My greatest fear is making a fool of myself. When you're just starting out you tend to have a contingency plan for everything."

In his first case he had to cross-examine the managing director and regional director of a company that had been accused of unfair dismissal. "From the way they were answering my questions, I don't think they were very happy about it," he says.

And one or two local solicitors have been known to try to intimidate the students. "We've had the occasional forceful letter that perhaps they wouldn't send to anyone else," says Mr Taylor. "It's a bit of a scare tactic."