Tag Archives: Law on Trial

New Foundations: Re-designing the Academic Stage of Legal Training

This post was contributed by Joanna Hartl, a first-year student on Birkbeck’s three-year LLB.

Day three of Law on Trial made me think:  “Why do lawyers spend so much time arguing ?” The answer is obvious: “Because they can’t help it!” Besides which –  how do you define an argument? Is it a heated discussion, or just people who have different views, perhaps the word “debate” would be better. Or is it because in the heart of every lawyer there lies the innate desire to always challenge the person with the opposing viewpoint, yes perhaps there we have it! The adversarial technique… is it genetically inherited? /environmentally cultivated? /developed through peer pressure? /caught like a virus? / or does it infect you like a Trojan Worm, so that once it has got itself into your system, it seems to be self-perpetuating forever and ever? A lawyer’s lot is not a happy one it seems, when they are studying or teaching something which they would rather not be.

The Alternative Law Degree

I thought I was already following a pretty alternative course. Since coming to Birkbeck I seem to have spent more time studying history, politics, economics and the welfare state, than it seems I have spent on studying the law itself, but then the law is purely a product of all those anyway. I don ‘t know about anyone else, but I think I ‘m already on the Alternative Law Degree. So at the end I may well end up getting an LLA (LLAlternativa!) But to be honest with you, I have totally enjoyed myself in the process, and like somebody said tonight, no one has yet dared to actually lay down what categorically comprises the content material/exact syllabus of the core subjects. We ‘re all going to be happy with “violence” and “environment” instead of criminal and land law.  In any case, it’s only the words you choose to define things. The things you are defining will still be there, whatever words you use. Your job as teachers is to instill in the student the ability to think critically, and for this Birkbeck deserves a FIRST PRIZE and a GOLD STAR. Education is not about just getting a first,  it’s also about discovering your own abilities and developing them, in order to change society, and I think that Birkbeck is doing its level best to make that happen.


Legal Education: Socialist Survivors

This post was contributed by Joanna Hartl, a first-year student on Birkbeck’s three-year LLB.

On the second day of Law On Trial, things livened up a bit, with quite a lot of audience participation. Professor Bill Bowring chaired the panel, consisting of two young, dynamic and recently qualified lawyers, Stephen and Natalie. Both gave excellent punchy presentations, putting their point across as Socialist Lawyers, and trying to show that the Legal Education System which exists in the Northern Hemisphere is very much supporting the continuity of the established capitalist status quo. The inadequacies and irrelevancy of the professional training courses necessary to practise law in the UK i.e. the B.P.T.C and the L.P.C were highlighted, and the cost of the B.P.T.C. in particular was seen as prohibitive to the majority of those present, so much so that one aspiring young lawyer has already decided to continue her studies in Nigeria, where the whole course equivalent to the B.P.T.C. costs only £4000 and no pupillage is required. Dr Oscar Guardiola-Rivera was happy that such an interchange should take place, but the student felt that it was for the wrong reasons, as it was not an economic option for her to continue in the UK! As well as highlighting the plight of individual impoverished Law students, and their fight for the right to continue their studies amidst continuing funding difficulties and  economic barriers; other key areas were also explored, which are of current topical and political interest, in particular the government’s legal aid cuts, and the pending impact this will have on many high street law firms. It will mean closure for many, as well as an end to the funding of neighbourhood law centres. Strike action was encouraged, which has already taken place, with both barristers and solicitors on strike against Legal Aid Cuts. We were exhorted to sign the petition against the cuts, which is called “saveukjustice”, and to join The Haldane Society, which is open to anyone interested in Law (you don’t need to be a qualified lawyer) and Socialism. The ideas of Peter Kropotkin were espoused by Stephen, and women were encouraged by Natalie to read the book by Baroness Helena Kennedy ” Eve Was Framed “, which will form the subject of discussion of a reading group at the Haldane Society. The evening was rounded off by Bill Bowring with a call to the Bar (on the 4th floor) for anyone wishing to continue the lively discussion. It was an extremely thought provoking, and stimulating evening, and well worth the effort of attending. I wil certainly be there again tomorrow!


The Utopian Law School and the Fate of the University

This post was contributed by Joanna Hartl, a first-year student on Birkbeck’s three-year LLB.

The first day of  Law on Trial was well attended, with an impressive line up of academics on the panel. With Dr Adam Gearey in the chair, we were led into the first presentation by Jane Holder from UCL, which was about opening us up to Environmental Law and Ecology. We were told that it would be good if students and academics alike could walk the talk by becoming self-sustaining economic units, similar to monastic units, by fundamentally getting back to nature and living in a utopian ecological paradise experiencing a series of diverse ecosystems first-hand and learning how to manage them, while studying at the same time. It called to my mind an image of people becoming a modern day Diggers Group, led by Adam, spade in one hand, and photocopied earth stained seminar texts in the other, growing carrots and lettuces in Torrington Square, with Patricia Tuitt complete with trowel and compost planting tomato seedlings in pots on the roof garden of the 5th floor eatery! I was left waiting for the announcement as to when the work was to commence……..!?! Certainly food for thought, and with the rapid increase of community gardens, who knows what the result may be….it is up to us as students to be the movers, if anything is to be done!

The idea of running a self-sustaining academic unit, where all became involved was further developed through the second presentation from Maia Pal of Sussex University. Maia recounted the occupation of Sussex University in 2012 which lasted for approximately two months. A cross section of about 300 people from the university got together from diverse areas, taking over the conference centre – not only students but also security guards, administration staff and academics, together with cleaners and catering staff who joined forces to support a joint effort of protest against the management of the university, who had decided among other things to privatise, in order to try and save money, and outsource approximately 250 jobs. They managed to successfully occupy the university until a 2000-strong group of supporters somehow smashed the door of the main entrance, and then legal proceedings were taken to evict them, with five students being arrested. It is now illegal to stage a protest if the management haven’t given their consent! The slogan painted on the wall that summed it up was “A University Is Nothing Without Dialogue”. Maia energetically encouraged us all to think about who owns the University, is it the management? Is it the students? Is it the people who work there? The academics, and/or the non- faculty staff? Maia told us that she had learnt from her experiences in Quebec where both faculty and non-faculty could bind together successfully. She challenged us to think about the use of space and ownership, and that thinking about law should be a part of our education, especially where we are exposed to “Jurisdictional Struggles” which in themselves question the existence of the law, and the use of space.

From this pragmatic stance we were guided back into the realms of literature by the next speaker, Thomas Docherty of Warwick University, who told us that the poet Shelley stated “….Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world…..” But he then went on to give a very cogent account of the political history behind the introduction of tuition fees for higher education, and critiqued Cameron ‘s ” something for nothing ” gripe about people who don’t have any resources wanting a share of the cake, making a comparison with those business-minded types who seek to enforce this culture into academic fields, and business, whereby someone will be expected to bring more results for less funding year after year until finally there is nothing left! Ultimately leading to THEFT! He covered also how the teaching accreditation techniques were becoming increasingly meaningless, causing an administrative overload, and not much else. He threw out pertinent questions to the audience about student debt, and taxation, and the possible privatisation of the student loan book, which the government would like to sell off. He told us that this increase in debt (poetic reference here to debt being like a “….shadow that is cast…”) is adding to social injustice, and ultimately would create yet more inequality. What we need to aspire to is a just university where …”crisis decision making “… at the heart of the university can be seen to be effective in extending justice out into the community, rather than allowing injustices (of all sorts) to continue.Thomas then summed up, saying that what we often get is quantity not quality, proving that he is obviously a poet and a literary man at heart!

Plenty of ideas and information came from this meeting, we just need to decide what course of action to pursue now, as the ball is in our court.


Civil liberties under threat

This post was contributed by Guy Collender from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations

Legal experts analysed and challenged the controversial police tactics used against protestors in the UK as part of Law on Trial at Birkbeck. 

The lawyers emphasised the role of protest throughout history, and argued that heavy-handed policing and cuts to legal aid are undermining dissent. The police, it was predicted, are likely to increase their use of stop-and-search powers during the Olympics this summer. The presentations largely focused on kettling – confining demonstrators to a small area – and the response of the authorities to occupations. 

Professor Bill Bowring, of Birkbeck’s School of Law and the International Secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, chaired the public event on 19 June as part of Law on Trial – a week-long series of legal talks. He began by explaining the School’s progressive and critical approach to the study of law. Bowring said: “We do not take law for granted as something that comes down from above with some sort of divine status. We interrogate it.”

Kat Craig, a solicitor at Christian Khan and Vice-chair of the Haldane Society, continued by highlighting how dissent has played a “fundamental and crucial role” in changing society for the better, including gaining the right for women to vote. However, she pointed out that current major cuts to legal aid and the exclusion of certain areas of protest law from such support are undermining access to justice.

Craig spoke about representing protestors engaged in litigation against state bodies, including the police and Home Office. In particular, she mentioned cases against the police use of kettling, which has become commonplace during demonstrations, including student protests, in recent years. She said: “Kettling is indiscriminate. I am firmly of the view that kettling is an infringement of Article 5 [the right to liberty and security of person, European Convention on Human Rights]. The House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights have disagreed, both saying that kettling is not a breach of Article 5.

Owen Greenhall, a pupil barrister at Garden Court Chambers and an Executive Committee member of the Haldane Society, referred to protestor occupations during his presentation. He briefly outlined the history of such events, from the Greensboro sit-ins at segregated food counters in North Carolina in the 1960s to the more recent protests in London in Parliament Square and outside St Paul’s Cathedral.

Greenhall highlighted the trend towards by-laws restricting certain activities in high-profile places, and the difficulty of challenging these new rules. For example, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 includes provisions for a “constable or authorised officer” to stop protestors engaging in “prohibited activities”, including using “amplified noise equipment”, erecting tents and using “sleeping equipment” in Parliament Square. A similar by-law has also been passed in relation to Trafalgar Square.

During the question and answer session, concerns were expressed by Craig about the likely increase in the use of stop-and-search in East London during the Olympics.

Listen to the audio recording of the presentations