Last week was the first session of the brand new Butler Law Course; a Learning Together partnership between the University of Cambridge and HMP Warren Hill. Drawing inspiration from Tom Bingham’s book, ‘The Rule of Law, Butler Law Course students are interrogating the accessibility, intelligibility, clarity and practical viability of UK law. Students from Cambridge and students who are currently resident in HMP Warren Hill are working together, undertaking research into legal issues that are important to people within the criminal justice system but about which there is currently too little accessible, intelligible, clear or predictable information or an approach to regulation which also falls short of these ambitions.
On Thursday 16 November, the new pilot course officially launched with the first session conducted in Warren Hill. After months of planning, and much last-minute administration, Cambridge students made the 1.5 hour journey from the Institute of Criminology to meet their peers in HMP Warren Hill, in a minibus that was expertly driven by Ruth. Amy and Izzie were the advance party, arriving to the Gate shortly before everyone else to get everything set up – 4 big boxes of resources and plenty of tea, coffee and biscuits to keep everyone energised.
After an efficient welcome and security checks by Gate staff, the Cambridge students were first to arrive to the visits hall – our venue for the course. Warren Hill students arrived hot on the heels of the Cambridge contingent and so, in no time at all, the visits hall was brimming with the excited voices of people getting to know one another. Students had been pre-assigned to small study groups – and each group had been named after a well known University of Cambridge graduate (see pictures below) – and so students busied themselves meeting other students in their group and reading about the person after whom their group had been named.
The students’ first task was to discuss and present who they were as a group, and their aspirations for the course. Students bonded quickly over shared heritage, pets, football and love of learning. They shared their aspirations for the course. Some were small, and personal, like the desire to come out of one’s comfort zone or build confidence in public speaking. Others were further reaching such wanting to implement change, create an impact or promote defendant’s rights. We then threw down the gauntlet, asking students to come up with the rules for our learning environment that will enable everyone to realise their aspirations for the course, recognising that we are a diverse community, meeting in a unique shared prison and university environment. Central to students’ concerns were respect for each other, and in the case of Warren Hill students, their victims, confidentiality and the nature and appropriate boundaries of the intellectual friendships that everyone hoped would grow during the course. Working collaboratively with staff colleagues from Warren Hill, we thought together about two practical scenarios that might emerge during the course and how we might respond to those situations well, in ways that fulfil our expectations for ourselves and others, and respect university and prison rules.
After a much needed tea break, the students got creative and set about identifying and exploring access to justice issues from newspaper stories and headlines. They created posters to present the access to justice issues that they had encountered, raising questions about voice, and who has a stake in law making and law enforcement processes, about how material wealth can affect people’s ability to enforce their legal rights, and about how the increasingly transnational nature of justice issues presents a practical challenge for the vindication of rights as well as a regulatory challenge for agreeing on common rules or standards of protection.
The session finished by introducing our speaker series for the course – legal scholars, reformers and commentators who will join us for the start of each session of the course between January and March 2018, to inspire and encourage students to think critically about the law and its operation, effects, and potential. Alongside this speaker series, students will work together in sessions to devise original research, advice and summary toolkits that other people can use to understand the current legal and policy position in a given legal field that the group has selected as falling short of the rule of law conditions of accessibility, intelligibility, clarity and practical viability. They’ll present their work at an end of course conference in April 2018.
We’ll be announcing our line up of speakers soon, as well as further information about the end of course conference, so stay tuned for more exciting news soon!