Problem-based learning and clinical legal education: What can clinical educators learn from PBL?


  • Cath Sylvester Northumbria University
  • Jonny Hall Northumbria University
  • Elaine Hall Northumbria University



This paper originated as a session at the Society of Legal Scholars conference in Leicester in September 2002. The writers4 have been teaching in Northumbria University’s Student Law Office for a number of years. We knew the practical benefits of clinical legal education but two particular problems presented themselves. The first was articulating the rationale for doing it beyond the fact that it exposes students to real practice. Given the fact that the UK already has a training contract regime whereby trainee solicitors spend the first two years of their professional life being supervised and supported by qualified professionals, what is the purpose of clinical legal education? The second problem we had arose when we looked at our Year 3 training programme5 and then student attitudes and ability when they reached the Year 4 programme.

We found that many of our new Year 4 students did not engage in our firm meetings to discuss other students’ cases very well. That once the client had been interviewed many of them simply approached their supervisor for the next step. That they effectively expected the supervisor to tell them where to look for the law, or just tell them the law. In short that they had some way to go in becoming effective problem solvers.

It was these difficulties that drew us to the theory of Problem Based Learning (PBL) and its methodology. This paper explores this element of what we are trying to achieve through the clinic experience, the basic theory of PBL6, a description of the problems that we have encountered with our programme, the implementation of PBL in our Year 3 programme and some research conducted into the student experience in our new Year 3 programme.







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