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Shiva Riahi, Manager/Research Associate, Centre for Access to Justice

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Illustration Lucinda Rogers

It’s easy to think, “I’m just a student, I can’t do much,” but we show them they can

A big part of our work at the Centre for Access to Justice is to engender a sense of social justice and awareness in our students. It’s easy to think, “I’m just a student, I can’t do much,” but actually we show they can.

Since I was a child, I wanted to make a difference. That said, I fell into my role quite by accident. Having graduated from UCL in Law in 2012, I was taken on originally as a research assistant, and then stepped into a management capacity as the Centre developed.

At the moment, most of my time is taken up with managing relationships with our students and partner organisations, as well as managing pro bono projects such as the one at the Sir Ludwig Guttman Centre in East London to provide legal advice to people who couldn’t normally afford it. This project brings together a lot of strands of what the Centre is all about: students volunteering to deliver pro bono work; students engaging with the Connected Curriculum through the clinical course that we run for final-year students (of whom I was one myself on the original pilot course); and the provision of legal advice to vulnerable individuals.

The clinic opens for two afternoons a week, where all our clients are registered with the local GP’s surgery. And because this is UCL, there’s a research project involved too – and this is where the importance of location comes in. Some time ago, the Dean, in her original research on legal needs, began to see the links between people’s legal problems and the impact this can have on other areas of their life, health being one of them. Someone might, for example, go to the doctor for anti-depressants and when the doctor asks why, they say they’re about to get evicted from their home. Of course, what they actually need is not to be evicted and it’s in recognition of these legal/health links that countries like Australia and the US now have health/justice partnerships.

In the US, for example, doctors who were treating a group of children with asthma realised they kept coming back because of the damp and mould in their rented accommodation, illustrating the need for doctors and lawyers to work together holistically to deal with the original root cause.

But despite feedback for these partnerships showing that they can be hugely beneficial, they still haven’t really taken off in the UK, and part of our work will be to see whether the empirical evidence can demonstrate tangible impacts – evidence that we’re uniquely placed to get because we’re based in a health centre.

We’re in the early stages and, this term, we’ve run a pilot study to see who actually needs legal advice, what their problems are and how they respond when you ask them certain questions, so that we can produce the best questionnaire. We’re also talking to GPs to work out how to create systems that aren’t a burden on them, and we’re about to bring on a new member of our team – a health researcher who understands the structure of healthcare systems – to complement our understanding of the legal system and ensure a multi-disciplinary approach. The idea is that, eventually, legal advice would be seen as a medical intervention like any other – just another type of specialist you may be sent to.

Because of the cuts to legal aid, and the current state of the NHS, there is a particular danger of these most vulnerable members of society being lost, so the work we’re doing feels particularly pertinent. We also know, from other UCL research, that there are clear links between social inequalities and health inequalities, and this provides our wider context.

In 2014, 600 UCL alumni donated more than £66,000 towards the Centre for Access to Justice. If you would like to support the Centre and its future work at UCL East, and for more information, visit our website www.ucl.ac.uk/campaign

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