Queen Mary University of London: Queen Mary’s Legal Advice Centre wins civic engagement award

QMLAC was awarded first place in the 2022 MacJannet Prize, beating applicants from more than 400 universities across 82 countries on six continents, rewarding its unrivalled commitment to developing student leaders who are actively engaged with society and promoting access to justice in the community.

Founded in 2006 as the first law clinic of its kind at a London university, QMLAC has received more than 18000 enquiries and advised more than 4000 clients over the decades, showing the ongoing need for support in the local community. This academic year alone, 446 Queen Mary students worked with 220 lawyers to help 1604 people with legal advice or community projects to improve legal capability. The prize money will fund a part-time PhD student to support client enquiries and reduce time taken for assisting or signposting new cases.

Frances Ridout, who directs QMLAC as well as being a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and practising barrister, said on accepting the award: “This prestigious global award is wonderful recognition – of the commitment shown by our students and volunteers, of the trust and support of our partners and clients, and of Queen Mary’s dedication to civic engagement which drives our mission forwards.

“QMLAC is a wonderful example of our local community, volunteer lawyers, law students and wider university coming together to achieve something far bigger than could be done alone. We will continue to strive towards enabling access to justice for all, and educating our future lawyers in the importance of pro bono and community service.”

When Covid-19 hit the UK, QMLAC supported clients with social welfare benefit applications due to a surge in demand as the pandemic unfolded. Since the Centre started representing clients in disability benefit appeals, students have won more than half a million pounds worth of welfare benefits for disabled clients.

Amid global outcry at the death of George Floyd, 2020 also saw QMLAC set up the Black Justice Project: a specialist clinic giving legal advice to the Black community on employment discrimination, police actions and Windrush compensation. Other QMLAC clinics helping often overlooked communities include an immigration law clinic for refugees and migrants, the Pink Law Project for LGBTQ+ people, and the UK’s only specialist free legal clinic for victims of image-based sexual abuse.

Award judges from the MacJannet Foundation and the Talloires Network explained: “The Selection Committee admired the dedication of staff and students for the programme. They were particularly impressed with the programme’s focus on mutual benefits for both students and clients, natural progression in student leadership opportunities, vast reach and impact, strong community partnerships, and very well-documented quantitative evaluations to measure the impact of the programme.”

The Centre’s work ranges from helping charities write policies and designing toolkits that increase accessibility using principles of legal design, to running secondary school workshops about online safety and primary school workshops to help children understand identity and discrimination. QMLAC students have also run human rights workshops for teens from disadvantaged backgrounds and visited prisons to help inmates understand their rights regarding lost property.

An anonymous QMLAC client commented: “Legal advice, due to its cost, is highly exclusive, and this service opens it up to people who otherwise would not have the means to obtain the advice they dearly need. It’s the little things that can help someone when facing the lowest time of their life… just knowing there is help out there and they are not alone.”

QMLAC has directly fed into national policy work in England, giving evidence to the Law Commission and Legal Services Board that informed recommendations for reform.

Professor Colin Bailey OBE, Queen Mary’s President and Principal, concluded: “Our Legal Advice Centre was the first of its kind in the city, and has been at the forefront of clinical legal education and public engagement on a national level ever since. QMLAC is particularly special because it weaves outstanding student knowledge exchange and education into public engagement, as well as ultimately producing graduates who are more likely to engage in pro bono initiatives on graduation.

“Queen Mary’s proud history of public engagement dates back to our origins as the People’s Palace in 1887, and QMLAC is an incredibly important part of our present and future in this regard. As part of our ongoing commitment to connecting with our local community, we strive to create an environment where our research, teaching and other core business can be shaped, shared, and conducted with the public as partners in the process.”