School of Law Community Engagement – Reflecting on a year impacted by Covid-19
Community Engagement activities in the School of Law offer students the opportunity to put into practice knowledge and skills developed throughout their studies, whilst also supporting the community.
As the vast majority of Community Engagement (pro bono) activities offered require volunteers to physically go into the community, Covid-19 forced the range of activities for the 2020-21 academic year to halve.
For the projects which could still take place the Community Engagement Team (Lydia Bleasdale and Niamh Byrne) worked with the project partners to find creative solutions that would still ensure valuable, beneficial and impactful community engagement experiences despite the challenging circumstances.
Four Community Engagement projects were successfully adapted for online involvement: the Cerebra Pro Bono Research Programme, StreetLaw, Support Through Court and the Welfare Appeals and Tribunal Clinic. Due to the flexibility of external partners, the 2020-21 academic year allowed for 268 volunteer places, a reduction of only 10 places on the previous year.
Cerebra Pro Bono Research Programme
This year the Cerebra research programme, led by Professor Luke Clements with the support of Dr Ana Laura Aiello, focused on the experiences of disabled children and their families with the process of social care needs assessments. Students analysed a survey run by Cerebra on ‘parent carers’ experiences of ‘child in need’ assessments for disabled children, as well as searching for local assessment protocols on local authorities’ websites.
In volunteer feedback collected at the end of the project, 100% of respondents stated that taking part in the programme had improved their research skills as well as their understanding of disability law and 100% of respondents stated that the training prepared them for the project.
“There were times this term when I was struggling with some personal issues and very often, I would be able to throw myself into the research and it made me feel so much better because I was doing something interesting and (at least I felt) I was making some bit of difference.” – Cerebra Pro Bono Research Programme Volunteer
In March 2020, the Community Engagement Team and Educational Engagement Team worked together to devise a supportive and appealing online StreetLaw format that schools would still want to take part in during an uncertain academic year.
Volunteers prepared pre-recorded workshop material in small groups and many delivered live, online sessions to schools. The initial preparation support provided by local solicitors moved to online meetings and a Microsoft Team was set up which allowed for improved communication between volunteers.
“The sessions were very good, particularly given the difficulty of delivering sessions virtually. The students were engaged in both sessions and the trainers were knowledgeable and enthusiastic.” – Matt Goult, Longley Park Sixth Form
Support Through Court
Students who joined the Support Through Court project in September 2020 had the opportunity to volunteer in person, with the charity running a reduced, booking-only service until December. However, due to the lockdown imposed in early January, the semester 2 cohort of volunteers began supporting in a solely online capacity.
The launch of the service’s new national helpline ensured volunteers could still support service users effectively and experience meaningful client interactions.
“I have really enjoyed the client-facing role of being able to communicate with clients, both in-person and on the phone. It has been very enjoyable and rewarding, because I have not had any experience in a similar context before, so I developed my skills, knowledge and understanding, whilst knowing that I was helping and supporting the clients. Hearing the clients' gratitude for our support made the whole experience enjoyable” – Support Through Court Volunteer
Welfare Appeals and Tribunal Clinic
Project partners at Chapeltown Citizens Advice Bureau moved incredibly quickly to set up an online service for the charity, in time for clinic volunteers to begin supporting remotely from the start of summer 2020. The Appeals Specialist and Tribunal Representative, Leea Grancea, adapted training and client interaction methods to suit and Microsoft Teams was utilised for easy interaction.
“The online volunteering environment is fast paced and can make you feel under pressure because you’re working for a real client, this in turn makes it the best experience I’ve ever had. I feel much more confident about the possibility of working with real clients as a trainee in the future.” – Welfare Appeals and Tribunal Clinic Volunteer
The total income gain achieved for clients since October 2020 is an impressive £247,085, further demonstrating the continued, valuable work of this project despite the challenges faced.
The School’s Community Engagement Activities Co-ordinator Niamh Byrne told us:
“Every year, we are blown away by the commitment and enthusiasm shown by volunteers and partners to the projects. This year in particular, has challenged everyone in ways we never would have expected. This time last year, we were uncertain what the community engagement offering in the school would look like for the 2020-21 academic year.
“We would like to sincerely thank all project partners, volunteers and the School.
“The sheer passion, resilience and adaptability shown by all ensured the continuation, and in fact continuous development of a valuable, impactful community engagement offering. We have learned so much through the process and have evolved our innovative thinking.
“The feedback we received from this year further evidences that being involved in Community Engagement, no matter the format, is of truly great value, with a multitude of benefits for those involved and for the wider community.”
The School of Law’s Community Engagement team were also nominated for the ‘Access to Justice Foundation Award’ for an educational body or student making a significant contribution at the LawWorks and Attorney General Student Pro Bono Awards 2021 and were ‘highly commended’ for their work.