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Developing law clinics in Vietnam – a model for progress?

27 November 2012 

By Rebecca Parker – Pro Bono Co-ordinator & supervising solicitor, The College of Law, Birmingham

I am the Pro Bono Co-ordinator at The College of Law, Birmingham and supervising solicitor for the in-house Legal Advice Centre. The centre provides a range of free advice services allowing opportunities for our students to gain practical legal work experience under supervision which enhances their learning and employability. These programmes and clinics assist communities, provide legal services of a professional standard and simultaneously help build the next generation of social justice, pro-bono minded champions.

I previously trained and worked as a nurse and this experience contributed to my commitment to ‘hands-on’ learning and ‘clinical’ teaching similar to that practised in medical and related fields. I have had the opportunity to develop this work through the College both nationally and internationally so I was very keen to respond to a request from Bridges Across Borders South East Asia Community Legal Education Initiative (BABSEA CLE) for clinical legal education (CLE) experts to join a team running a legal education summer school in Vietnam throughout July and August 2012 – even with a warning that experts would have to be prepared to work long hours and stay in fairly basic conditions!

Can Tho - afternoon session

BABSEA CLE is an international access to justice, legal education organisation that focuses on capacity development and community empowerment and works collaboratively with universities, law students, law faculties, lawyers, members of the legal community, and justice related organisational partners to develop legal education and legal clinic programmes throughout Southeast Asia.

I volunteered to join a team of international experts from the UK, USA and Poland in the second of a two-week summer school based at Can Tho University in the very south of the country in the Mekong Delta. Involving lecturers and students from universities across Vietnam the summer school was designed to introduce participants to concepts of ‘clinical’ or ‘hands-on’ teaching and learning methods.  The rationale behind this was two-fold. First, educational theories suggest that if students are actively involved in their learning their understanding goes deeper than when they are more passive recipients of knowledge. Secondly, law schools can play an important part contributing to access to justice, by running or assisting with  professionally supervised legal services – either through in-house legal clinics and/or in partnership with other providers in the private and not-for-profit sectors.

Can Tho - BABSEA staff and expert Marianne USA

Having flown from the UK to Vietnam via Dubai, I arrived in Can Tho following a four-hour car journey from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) which gave a real flavour of the country. We travelled along roads crammed with mopeds and bikes carrying everything from small babies and children covered in netting to sleeping pigs in crates and chickens in baskets to mountainous stacks of eggs. This was interspersed with lush green paddy-fields and rivers banked with tall pink lotus flowers swaying in the breeze. It was straight to the university and an enthusiastic welcome from the hosts and the rest of the team then immediately down to work.

Can Tho - Becky at end of Summer School

Each morning session at the summer school began with discussions about interactive learning models and demonstrations of how the relevant models work in the classroom. The Vietnamese lecturers participated in simulated classes as ‘students’. In the afternoons, the lecturing staff implemented the clinical methodology working with real students. At the end of each day there was an opportunity for peer and self-feedback and commentary from the ‘experts’. It was challenging work at times: It was necessary to deliver teaching, appreciate contributions and provide detailed feedback through interpretation and translation and most days temperatures reached 27 degrees with 85 per cent humidity. However this was all eased by the intense enthusiasm, generosity and gentleness of our Vietnamese hosts, constant sunny days even in monsoon season, and a dazzling array of exotic fruits such as: rambutan with its transparent-white and tender flesh and cool sweet taste; the pure refreshing mangosteen; the fragrant juice of the marvellous star apple and the thirst-quenching pomello, along with iced teas and coffees at breaks and meal times.

Can Tho - morning session Becky and Laura

The Dean of the Can Tho Law School provided vision and support which gave a firm foundation for the work that was carried out. Judging by the enthusiastic response to the sessions and the hard work put in by all participants (we took turns to hold evening office hours sessions held at the local hotel where we stayed which were avidly attended by lecturers and students alike!) the summer school was a great success.

A day’s break allowed for a trip on the mighty Mekong River and its tributaries in a small traditional river boat. The sight of the Can Tho Bridge (the longest cable-stayed bridge in south East Asia) was magnificent in the sunlight and the wonderful floating market comprised a host of vessels displaying fruits and vegetables, fish and an array of wares for sale. The tiny Vietnamese lady who accompanied the boat complete with a Vietnamese conical hat – nón lá (leaf hat) and friendly face creased no doubt by hours under baking sun (and perhaps what seemed like endless smiles and laughter) sliced and passed round a juicy water melon and even offered vigorous shoulder and leg massages!

Can Tho - research session

And so to week two: It is one thing encouraging people to take on innovative teaching methods but quite another to ensure that those ideas become a reality. So, immediately following the summer school, a group of staff from Can Tho University, assisted by a much smaller international team which I joined, worked on designing a new credit-bearing course that would provide teaching staff with the tools to develop CLE methods and give the students the chance to put theory into practice. The programme also needed to meet specific requirements including those governing higher education in Vietnam, the internal rules of the university and professional practice requirements. The end result was also intended to give a platform for the Law School to develop an in-house legal clinic to benefit the local community as and when resources permitted. The initial design had to be deliverable within existing staffing levels and the law school was keen to help design the CLE course and to pilot it.

Can Tho - Session

The team concluded that, in order to acquire relevant experience of interactive learning and to build the necessary self-confidence of all involved, the course had to be based on a range of simulated case studies that represented the sort of legal problems that might be encountered in a legal clinic. These were devised covering range of civil and criminal scenarios and looking in particular at family, housing, inheritance and environmental issues. With these in place the course could be given structure. Spread over 13 weeks the CLE module will take the case studies and work through the process of giving clients (albeit fictional ones at this stage)  the advice and support they need. In addressing the case studies students, guided by law teachers, will have to go through a case from obtaining the initial facts (through interview) to conducting relevant research and drafting accurate and realistic advice. In this way the students will cover substantive legal knowledge, legal and related skills and the professional values attaching to providing a legal service. Although the exercises are simulated they should provide the framework for a live-client legal clinic at some future point. The course design also included a section dealing with legal literacy – the awareness of community groups of their rights and responsibilities.

Can Tho - summer school poster

Subject to evaluation the Law School expressed a willingness to share the outcomes with other law schools in Vietnam with a view to developing a country-wide CLE initiative. The course is planned for the semester beginning in January 2013 with an evaluation scheduled to take place later that year.

The Law School at Can Tho University is leading the way in terms of CLE in Vietnam. Students and clients are both likely to benefit from this development. With local and regional adaptation this may provide a blue print for better education and greater access to justice.

It was a delight and privilege to make a small contribution to such a worthwhile development in a truly stunning, exotic country amongst disarmingly gracious, kind and forgiving people.

(This article was first published in Legal Week,


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