"Our roots began in (South) Africa": Modelling law clinics to maximise social justice ends


  • Donald Nicolson University of Strathclyde, UK




This article explores the ways in which law clinics can be organised to maximise their impact on social justice in South Africa. Such impact can be both direct in the form of the actual legal services offered to those in need or indirect in the form of encouraging law clinic students to commit to assisting those most in need of legal service after they graduate either through career choice or other forms of assistance. The article develops a decision-making matrix for clinic design around two dimensions, each with a number of variables. The first, "organizational" dimension relates to the way clinics are organised and run, and involves choices about whether: (1) clinics emphasise social justice or student learning; (2) student participation attracts academic credit or is extra-curricular; (3) participation is compulsory or optional; (4) clinics are managed and run by staff or students; and (5) there is one "omnibus" clinic structure covering all clinic activities or a "cluster" of discrete clinics conducting different activities. The second, "activities" dimensions involves choices about whether services are: (1) specialist or generalist; (2) exclusively legal or "holistic"; (3) provided only by students or qualified legal professionals; (4) located in community neighbourhoods or on campus; (5) provided by students working "in-house" in a university clinic or in external placements; (6) designed to benefit the wider community rather than just the individuals directly served; and (7) designed to remedy existing problems or educate the public on their legal rights and duties.

While not intending to set out a blueprint for existing law clinics, the article argues that, if South African are motivated to enhance their impact on social justice and level of community engagement, they can learn much from the first law clinic to be established in South Africa, at the University of Cape Town, which was entirely student-run, optional and solely focused on ensuring access to justice rather than educating students. Drawing on his experience in adapting this model for use in Scotland, the author looks at the advantages of combining the volunteerist and student owned nature of this clinic with some formal teaching and staff involvement to maximize both the direct and indirect impact of clinics on social justice.

Author Biography

Donald Nicolson, University of Strathclyde, UK

Professor of Law and Director of Law Clinic School of Law, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow






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