Blog post

A breath of fresh air for law faculties

Wolfgang Kaleck
Blog post

Lasting change is always difficult to achieve without changes in education – and so it’s little wonder that German lawyers are somewhat underrepresented in the international human rights law scene. For a long time human rights, particularly as provided for under international law, were almost entirely absent from legal education in Germany. Law studies were focused on the national legal sphere and German was often the only language spoken in faculties. This is despite the fact that the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice have for a long time had a great influence on criminal law, labor law and immigration law cases.

This deficit was the topic for discussion at the five-year anniversary celebrations for the Law Clinic Grund- und Menschenrechte (fundamental and human rights) at the Humboldt University in Berlin, the first law clinic in Germany explicitly focused on human rights. The law clinic movement comes from the Anglo-American legal system where it has been a recognized element of law degree programs for decades. Students work on real life cases along with professors, human rights organizations and civil rights and antidiscrimination lawyers. The practical focus serves, of course, to better prepare students for the demands of the labor market. But it also has another purpose: hundreds of renowned civil and human rights figures found their calling as progressive and pugnacious lawyers through the law clinics and the collaborative work they did there. This practice-orientated approach is still something of a novelty in law schooling in Germany.

All the more reasons to welcome the Berlin Clinic – led at first by Professor Susanne Baer, now a judge at the German Constitutional Court, and later by Professor Sarah Elsuni – which over the last five years has established itself in the law faculty and further afield. It’s also interesting to see the current initiatives in many university towns to set up refugee law clinics, as was done recently in Hamburg, Bremen, Regensburg and Berlin. This is badly needed since the state authorities – those who are actually obliged to help – have long stopped offering adequate legal counseling to the thousands of refugees who have come to Germany. It’s easier to mistreat people who are not well informed. Lawyers dedicated to the cause are swamped by the sheer number of those seeking advice, particularly since they generally get paid little, if at all. Their colleagues who are specialized in immigration law fluctuate between overwork and economic difficulties. That’s where the law clinic movement comes in: well trained and supervised student advisors can reach out to more people, deal swiftly with administrative and simple legal issues, filter out the particularly complex cases and refer these to more experienced lawyers. This voluntary extracurricular work also has a political dimension. Traditional legal training generally deals only with the “law on the books”; often only the mainstream doctrines are taught and alternative theories are ignored. There is almost no engagement with the question of how rights can actually be enforced in the prevailing societal conditions, particularly the rights of the underprivileged. The legal training process, which is extremely lengthy by European standards, tends to produce utterly blinkered “experts”.  

 That this view is an exaggerated one is, happily, made clear by the event at the Humboldt University and the many other new clinic initiatives. Here we see young and not so young lawyers who have made it through the maligned university education and who are putting their critical approach into action. Often though, a progressive career outlook is only viable in certain faculty niches, and even this space is threatened by the increasingly school-based approach to third level education and by the limited job options for politically engaged lawyers. All the more heartening, then, to see these current student initiatives on refugee and human rights.