University Law Clinics and the Growing Demand for EU Law

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.

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 percent of respondents did not feel well informed about their EU law rights and 20 percent did not feel informed at all. Meanwhile, the 2009 EU MEDIS survey revealed that while 37 percent of migrant and minority respondents living in the EU reported being personally subjected to racial discrimination in the preceding year, 80 percent of them did not report the event to anyone, often because they were unaware of the possibility of legal redress.

The knowledge gap amongst individual rights-holders is exacerbated by a skills gap within the legal profession. Although there are increasing numbers of 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.

Making matters worse is that many law schools in Europe teach little or no EU law. According to a recent study of the 28 EU Member States, only 13 provided any form of explicit EU law training during the vocational stage of their legal studies. And in not one of the 13 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. The lawyers who will promote and defend EU rights in the future are taking shape at law clinics today.

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