Centre for Legal Education

Dr Liz Curran, Research Impact Lead at Nottingham Law School, discusses ‘Pathways to Empowerment’:

On Thursday 28 November 2021 a research evaluation report entitled Pathways to Empowerment recently authored by myself and my former colleague, Pamela Taylor-Barnett at ANU was launched on Zoom. It was commissioned by the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service and funded by the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioners, the Victorian Department of Justice & Regulation and NSW Legal Aid Commission.

This report has certain findings and opportunities for legal education scholars and legal assistance sector services in the UK like NLS’s Legal Advice Clinic, so I share some of the report’s findings with NLS and CLEA.

The research evaluation uses ‘action research’ which is an iterative process which enables us to gather the evidence and data at various stages throughout the research and then feed this back into the service with interim reports and debriefs, so all learn along the way, reflect on what is working and why it is working or why not and enable recalibration and adjustment. Pamela and I, took an approach which involved a 360 degree perspective involving clients, students, community, multidisciplinary professionals, management, boards, and advisers including cultural advisors. Benchmarks and indicators developed in previous studies were updated and refined but consistent including with adaptations for young people, First Nations and in light of the vagaries of family violence. Multiple tools were used in order to be able to test and verify results and both qualitative and quantitative data was collected.

This ongoing embedded evaluation is unique in the Australian legal assistance services and commenced in 2015 with such longitudinal research rare. It examines operations of a community legal service and its four partner agencies (an Aboriginal community health service, a school for at-risk young people and a children and family service (including drug alcohol and homelessness) working in collaboration as a multi-disciplinary practice to reach vulnerable young people. This enabled us to measure impact, noting that genuine impact takes time. Despite Covid 19 the project still managed to keep its referrals, secondary consultations, policy reform and educational activities running in 2020-2021. I have been commissioned to conduct the Stage 3 research evaluation in 2021-22 after funders announced further funding in the first week of December 2021.

The report analyses a lot of data in different aspects of the service. For CLEA interests, I will focus on the educational findings.

Community legal education:

· Community development is more than just conveying legal information but requires a sequential, engaging, and appropriate manner suitable to the age group and audience which was undertaken here.

· Authenticity and an openness to sharing the educator/lawyers own culture and personality enabled connection with the young people.

· A need to be alert to the needs of your people and to find the points of most connection with them for example inviting them to share experiences of police and areas of uncertainty in a safe space.

· There is a role for humour and responsiveness and flexibility to each group.

· The Community Development delivery has been structured enough to be deliberate but flexible enough to allow for scaffolding (where the confidence and skills of the young people grew).

Professional Development Training

· A common theme from the interviewees was that in all their work (Professional Development, Community Development and Legal Advice/Casework), the lawyers are clear.

They speak in plain English which is another essential attribute of a worker in integrated justice practice.

· During Covid -‘Cuppa dates’ by Zoom occurred as a substitute to staff face to face training. It was undertaken in an engaging and interesting way, and where updates restrictions could be discussed, and strategies developed. There were frequent changes to the rules during Covid in this border jurisdiction and so the ability to convey the changing landscape with a sense of immediacy to the professional staff was important. It seems to have been done with agility and timeliness through these Cuppa Dates.

· One of the most critical components of a learning environment is the freedom to ask questions and clarify things. The qualitative data indicates that this was a routine style of the lawyers.

· The topics are varied and relevant to the people that the workers are helping.

· Professional Development is a capacity-building exercise. Often, not everyone can be engaged by the same means and so diversifying activities, using practical scenarios and discussion and debriefs are critical.

· Professional Development has exceeded goals set, has been accessible, engaging and relevant.

Further relevant findings:

There is a high level of reflective practice skills of the lawyers involved in the program and changes in practice appear to be supported by management. Overall the proxies (used in this evaluation as indicators to measure impact) have been met or on the trajectory of being met, namely: reach, capacity, engagement, empowerment, reciprocity and collaboration.

The report contains many other interesting elements including some moving case studies so is worth a read, if I say so myself!