Not wanting in any way to put down the young contributor, I mumbled that everybody could be a solicitor. But it was to no avail – the voice came back again with the same words: “I couldn’t be a solicitor.”
His certainty shook me. I wondered could this schoolboy know something about legal qualifications that I did not. Despite my protestations that everybody could be a solicitor, he was unmoved in his belief that the solicitors’ profession was simply out of his reach.
Of course, he didn’t know anything about the route to legal qualification – and that there was absolutely no bar to him becoming a solicitor. Perhaps more importantly, however, he knew about life. He knew that former students from his school simply did not become solicitors. Indeed, their chances of going on to third-level education were significantly less than the national average.
Cause for optimism
This happened some years ago and, while hopeful that in more recent times there might have been some small improvement, sadly I wasn’t overly confident. However, a weekend at Blackhall Place has given me cause for optimism. With several solicitor colleagues, I was honoured to join the Street Law trainee orientation programme from 4- 6 November.
Behind the black railings, I discovered some 30 to 40 trainees who, following a busy week engaged in their professional studies, appeared eager to sacrifice their entire weekend to learn the skills for teaching Street Law to second-level and disadvantaged students.
The learning environment created by the trainees under the leadership of Dr Sean Arthurs and John Lunney is truly inspirational. Instead of feeling jaded on Monday morning, I felt invigorated and inspired. Before arrival, Keith Kierans, course administrator, had sent me the action-packed schedule for the weekend, from 4pm on Friday to 4pm on Sunday.
I was barely seated in the Green Hall when the organisers were looking for our favourite song and movie. What next?! We then discover that it’s all related to narrowing down who of the six listed deserving ‘patients’ should be offered the one available heart for a lifesaving transplant – and the background information we’ve shared might sway the outcome.
‘ET phone home’ is next on the screen. It appears that the aliens have landed and taken over the country. With all of our human rights up for grabs, the trainees must negotiate which rights the country should be allowed to keep. At the outset, it seems nonsensical, but as the clock ticks and various rights are shorn away, it all starts to become more real.
In the end, two groups must pick just three rights each. Things are desperate. Then, as soon as we think it’s all sorted, the ‘taoiseach’ phones Lunney on his mobile to tell him that the aliens are extremely tetchy – we now have only three rights up for grabs for the entire population.
It’s all about taking decisions under pressure. Will they crack? Not a chance! From the back of the hall, two trainees march up to the front, unannounced, and put order on the chaos – even taking a vote to finalise the selection of the final third right. Great work!
Saturday and Sunday witness us inspecting crime scenes, with some 28 exhibits scattered throughout the building. There are deliberations on some local schoolyard issues, and more detailed judgement on an infamous shipwreck case, known to jurisprudential scholars as R v Dudley and Stephens ( 14 QBD 273 DC), at 8.30am on Sunday morning. (The case concerned survival cannibalism following a shipwreck and its purported justification on the basis of a custom of the sea.)
All legal matters are laid out before us, with the overall intent and purpose being to take the law to the streets. By the end of the weekend, the final test for our trainees is to head to the front of the class to start teaching what they’ve learned. This they did with aplomb. No aspect of the law was deemed too difficult to impart to the man or woman on the street.
‘Reflection’ was a word that Dr Arthurs put significant emphasis on during the programme. When I look back at that ‘aliens’ scenario, I realise that it’s not so fanciful at all, given the reality that many countries in the world are now facing in terms of very direct attacks on the rule of law.
Our trainees were encouraged to argue and discuss the significance of some of the most fundamental elements of human rights, and are now empowered to bring their newfound teaching skills to their local communities. It is essential work.
Our sincere thanks to Sean, John, Keith and all the staff who helped to make this weekend happen. If any solicitor is lucky enough to receive an invitation to attend a Street Law orientation programme, be sure to take it. You won’t regret it, and you won’t forget it!
Frank Murphy is a solicitor with Ballymun Community Law Centre CLG.
TEN YEARS OF STREET LAW
The recent orientation weekend, led by Dr Sean Arthurs, marked the tenth year that Street Law has run at the Law Society, writes John Lunney (PPC course manager).
Back in 2013, we managed to coax 34 trainee solicitors into participating in our inaugural programme. Freda Grealy (then head of the Diploma Centre) had met Professor Rick Roe from Georgetown University (USA) where Street Law originated. Hearing about the initiative, she thought this was something that could work for trainee solicitors at the Law Society.
She was right – the programme has been so successful that, every year since, more than 100 PPC trainees have applied for the 40 available places.
The participating trainees lead a six-week programme in one of our 14 participating DEIS schools in the local community. Street Law taps into people’s inherent interest in, and curiosity about, the law, during which they learn high cognitive, academic, social and other skills that enhance each participant’s legal literacy.
The orientation training weekend has always been at the core of our Street Law Programme. Street Law is defined by its teaching philosophy, which promotes a learner-centred and interactive approach. We capture this idea in our programme’s slogan of ‘talk less, teach more’. Our training programme equips trainees with the belief and capacity to lead their own programmes in the community.
During the ten years, we have maintained our link with the Georgetown University Street Law Clinic. Our friend Prof Rick Roe and alumni from that clinic collaborate with us on our annual training event, which has become an internationally acclaimed model for preparing law students to teach Street Law programmes.
Over the ten years, Street Law has expanded. Solicitors have become involved through the Diploma Centre’s Certificate in Public Legal Education, and we have facilitated Street Law courses in prisons, community settings and primary schools. We look forward to further developments during the next ten years.
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