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The University of Ulster is to set up a law clinic where members of the public can get free advice and support on social security and employment law cases.

The service is being introduced on the Belfast campus through the first postgraduate course of its kind in the UK and Ireland specialising in social security and employment law.

The new LLM in Clinical Legal Education has been set up to meet the demand for advice and representation in industrial/fair employment tribunals and social security appeal tribunals.

Students will gain clinical legal experience through the creation of the Ulster Law Clinic, which students will manage, under supervision, on the Belfast Campus and under the Clinical Directorship of Ciarán White. They will also benefit from placements at the Legal Support Project in the Law Centre in Belfast.

Members of the public will receive free specialist advice and support on social security or employment law from LLM students who have been trained to provide advice and representation.

Course Director, Ciarán White, explained: “The Clinical Legal Education programme is a distinct and unique contribution to legal education in Northern Ireland, the UK and on the island of Ireland – there being no comparable programme at postgraduate level.”

The course has been introduced following research by Senior Law lecturer, Gráinne McKeever, for the Law Centre (NI) in 2010 and 2011 which led to proposals for the reform of Northern Ireland’s tribunal system, including improved access to advice and representation for tribunal users.

The need for change was also highlighted after it was revealed less than one per cent of people taking a case had won after a Fair Employment tribunal hearing.

Gráinne McKeever added: “The new programme’s function is to supplement the range of legal service providers by focusing on unmet legal need in the fields of employment and social security law, while giving students the opportunity to develop legal advice and advocacy skills and engaging their interest in the provision of legal services more generally.”

The law clinics concept has been endorsed by the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, Justice Minister David Ford MLA and by the Access to Justice Review Team, which recognises their value and the role that law students and universities have in bringing law to the people.

The School of Law has established an external Advisory Group, which will meet twice a year, to provide advice and guidance on the operational and strategic challenges that come with running a Law Clinic.

Dr Kenneth Mullan, Chief Social Security and Child Support Commissioner for Northern Ireland will chair this Advisory Group.

Members of the group include: Eileen McBride, President of the Industrial and Fair Employment Tribunals; Conall MacLynn, President of the Appeals Tribunals for Northern Ireland; Mary Kitson, Senior Legal Officer for the Equality Commission Northern Ireland; Sinead Mulhern, Head of the Legal Support Project, Law Centre (NI); Owen McCloskey, Project Worker, Legal Support Project, Law Centre (NI); Fiona Magee, Assistant Director, Advice NI; Louisa McKee, Training Manager, Citizens Advice NI.

Gráinne McKeever co-authored the report, ‘Redressing Users’ Disadvantage: Proposals for Tribunal Reform in Northern Ireland’ with Brian Thompson from the University of Liverpool. She also authored a further report on ‘Supporting Tribunal Users: Access to pre-hearing information, advice and support in Northern Ireland.”

The research entailed interviews with users of social security appeal tribunals, special educational needs tribunals and industrial/fair employment tribunals and industrial/fair employment tribunals, tribunal chairs, policy makers and tribunal judiciary.

Ms McKeever said: “A number of themes emerged from the interviews with users and others involved in the tribunal system. These included that people appealing didn’t know what to expect from tribunals prior to the hearing, that they faced a number of barriers in participating in the tribunal hearing and the dispute resolution processes leading up to this and that good quality specialist advice and representation is very beneficial.

“This new programme at the University of Ulster will help ensure that additional support is available for tribunal users, with LLM students providing specialist advice and representation on social security and employment law cases.”

Caption:Gráinne McKeever