Why the EU should take note of Europe’s newest legal clinics

By Lamin Khadar; October 2014

Researcher, European University Institute, Florence

A British citizen with a disability decides to take advantage of his EU right to free movement by relocating from the UK to Hungary to pursue specialist treatment for his disability and to be closer to family members who have emigrated there. However, when he moves to Hungary, the British government stops his disability benefit, despite having previously assured him this would not happen. His case is complex and time-consuming, and he cannot afford a private lawyer. Where can he turn?

This case comes from the EU Rights Clinic in Brussels, one of the many clinics emerging out of Europe’s growing clinical legal education movement.

Clinical legal education provides law students with real-life work experience. By working at clinics, students get out of the classroom and engage with real people who have pressing legal needs. They begin to think of themselves as practicing lawyers and as professionals with responsibilities to their communities and the world around them. Legal clinics involve law students in practical legal work for socially and economically marginalized clients who otherwise could not afford lawyers.  .

While legal clinics have been a consistent feature of legal education in Eastern and Central Europe since the mid-1990s and in Britain even before that, they have developed much more slowly in Western continental Europe. However, the last five to ten years has seen a boom in clinical legal education, first in Spain, then Italy, France and Germany. With the birth of the European Network for Clinical Legal Education (ENCLE) in 2012—whose goal is uniting clinics across the continent—clinical legal education is now a truly pan-European phenomenon.

Even more recently, a handful of specialist EU law and advocacy clinics have begun to emerge, like the EU Rights Clinic in Brussels, the European Human Rights and Migration Law Clinic in Turin or the EU Regulatory Policy Clinic in Paris. This growth is essential because EU law affects the lives of virtually everyone living and working in the European Union. Whether you are an Italian web designer moving to Poland to look for work, a German pensioner moving to Croatia to retire, or a British scholar studying in Italy, engaging with EU law will likely be both unavoidable and indispensable. However, studies consistently show that people residing in the EU (especially members of marginalized groups) face considerable obstacles in accessing their EU law rights. There seems to be both a knowledge gap and skills gap separating the people of Europe and their EU law rights.

There is now a vast array of rights available under EU law, covering everything from free movement to voting, and many EU citizens are unaware of their rights or do not know how to advocate for them.  Recent European commission studies suggest that over a quarter of polled EU citizens living outside of their home country (in a second EU member state) experienced problems accessing their rights and over half felt that the relevant local administrations were not aware of their EU law rights. According to the 2013 Eurobarometer survey on EU citizenship, 43% of respondents did not feel well informed about their EU law rights and 20% did not feel informed at all. Meanwhile, the 2009 EU MEDIS survey revealed that while 37% of migrant and minority respondents living in the EU reported being personally subjected to racial discrimination in the preceding year, 80% of them did not report the event to anyone, often because they were unaware of the possibility of legal redress. Again, with respect to LGBT persons living in the EU, a 2013 survey revealed that, in spite of EU law protections, on average nearly 20% of respondents (most notably, 42% of Italians) believed there was no law forbidding discrimination against persons because of their sexual orientation when applying for a job.

The knowledge gap amongst individual rights-holders is exacerbated by a skills gap within the legal profession. Although there are increasingly more EU law specialists, their services are expensive and they are often unwilling to take on unprofitable, simple and run-of-the-mill EU law queries. Beyond this group of specialists, most domestic lawyers avoid the vast and seemingly exponentially increasing body of EU law.

For those who cannot afford a lawyer, there are only a handful of individuals across Europe officially tasked by the EU to provide free of charge EU law advice to the 500 million plus people living in the EU. Over 100,000 quires are received every year by no more than a couple hundred dedicated staff working for the various EU-wide free EU law advice providers (i.e. Europe Direct, SOLVIT, Your Europe Advice and the Europeans Citizens Action Service). The number of cases and enquiries received is on the rise every year while staffing levels are stagnating or even decreasing. Even at a generous rate of handling 200,000 queries per year, only 0.04% of the EU population is being serviced.

Making matters worse is that many law schools in Europe teach little or no EU law. In a recent article for the British magazine, Law Society Gazette, Jonathan Goldsmith, secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), suggested that “even when taught, [EU law] is usually hidden – like unpalatable medicine for a sick child – in something sweeter that will slip down more easily, for instance in our own familiar national law” giving rise to a real problem of under-teaching. Meanwhile, according to a recent study of the 28 EU Member States, only thirteen provided any form of explicit EU law training during the vocational stage of their legal studies. Furthermore, such training lasted merely two days on average and in not one of the thirteen jurisdictions did the EU law instruction involve any kind of practical training. This means that for many lawyers in Europe, knowledge of EU law may be very limited in scope and exclusively theoretical in substance. In the words of one clinical law teacher, “at the start of the year, many of my students could not even tell me which country the European Court of Justice was in.”

Given the need for more affordable and available EU law services, the rise of clinics specializing in EU law is a promising development. These clinics are creating a new generation of well trained and socially conscious EU lawyers whose experiences serving the needs of individual clients will inculcate an understanding and commitment to applying EU law throughout their professional careers.

Meanwhile, on a sunny October morning in Brussels, representatives from ENCLE, Open Society employees, various staff from the European Union (EU) institutions, European law teachers, and even a couple of eager law students, gather in an meeting room for a presentation. The aim of the presentation: to raise awareness amongst the European institutions of Europe’s growing clinical legal education movement. The presentation introduced the employees of EU institutions to the work that these new legal clinics undertake, and to the testimonies of former clinic students, inspired by directly engaging in the law to help marginalized populations and even motivated to continue in careers dedicated to legal service. The presentation was followed by slew of questions and ideas: perhaps EU institutions and the relevant agencies and organizations could start referring individuals to clinics across Europe? Perhaps there could be developed a range of clinics each focused on particular areas of EU law (consumer rights, labor discrimination, children’s rights and so on)? Maybe EU funding calls could explicitly refer to clinics as potential applicants from now on? Hopefully these are all directions for future development.

But what is clear now is that Europe’s legal clinics are not standing on ceremony. At a two day training event following the presentation organized by ENCLE and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), established clinicians and OSJI litigators provided in-depth advice to scores of young law teachers from all across Europe who had set up or were trying to set up clinics at their respective law schools. Thematic teaching streams were organized on EU migration, Roma discrimination and ethic profiling. The atmosphere during the training event was vibrant and it was clear to all involved that, whatever the case, the future of clinical legal education in Europe is bright.