Street law programmes: The benefit of community service for law students is a two-way street

November 1st, 2020

Picture source: Gallo Images/Getty

The Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 (LPA), which came into force fully on 1 November 2018, places a strong emphasis on community service. One of its stated purposes is to broaden access to justice by putting in place measures to provide for the rendering of community service by candidate legal practitioners and practising legal practitioners (s 3(b)(ii)).

The Minister of Justice and Correctional Services must prescribe the requirements for community service after consultation with the Legal Practice Council (LPC) (s 29(1)). These requirements may include –

  • community service as a component of practical vocational training by candidate legal practitioners; or
  • a minimum period of recurring community service by practising legal practitioners.

Community service may include service in the state, the South African Human Rights Commission, service as a judicial officer, the provision of legal education and training on behalf of the LPC, an academic institution or non-governmental organisation, or any other service, which the candidate legal practitioner or legal practitioner may wish to perform, subject to the minister’s approval (s 29(2)). A new requirement to qualify for admission and enrolment as a legal practitioner, is that the community service requirement contemplated in
s 29 of the LPA must be satisfied (s 26(1)(c)).

Notably, with regard to education in law and legal practice generally, the LPC may advise the Council on Higher Education regarding matters relevant to education in law, including the desirability of including in the LLB curriculum a form of community service to be undertaken by all law students (s 6(5)(b) of the LPA).

In light of the emphasis by the LPA on community service being carried out not only by legal practitioners and candidate legal practitioners, but also by law students, we submit that law faculties at South African universities must ensure that they expose law students to some form of community service in the course of their studies. Such exposure could take many forms, one of them being for universities to establish a street law programme, or to enhance and further develop their existing street law programmes. Using Unisa’s Street Law programme as an example, this article discusses the benefits and value of law students participating in a street law programme as a form of community service.

What is street law?

Street law is one of the few available clinical legal programmes, which directly benefits both the student and the community at large. It is offered specifically to LLB students. The training, which is provided by Unisa Law Clinic legal practitioners, as well as seasoned lecturers at the university on various disciplines of the law, enables students to empower lay persons by providing them with practical information about the law and how it can be used in their everyday lives. The programme is called ‘Street Law’ because it aspires to teach people about the practical elements of the law that they could use ‘on the street’. In addition, the programme aims to give insight to law students on some of the challenges faced by their communities.

Benefits of participating in a street law programme

There are several benefits to law students participating in a street law programme. The obvious benefit is that students learn to understand the practicalities of everyday law, and how to apply the law in a holistic manner. They also become aware of current legal problems within SA and how the law has developed, practically, to try to solve these problems. For example, on the topic of domestic violence, students are taught the steps, as well as the pitfalls, to apply for a protection order against an abuser. This topic is of critical importance since South Africa has one of the world’s highest gender-based violence rates in the world. In the business law topic, students are taught the steps to register a company and to start a small business. Due to South Africa’s high unemployment rate, this topic was introduced to encourage unemployed community members to take the first step in starting their own small business, and to educate them on how to make their business a success.

The structure of the training, encourages students to develop their listening skills, note-taking skills, presentation skills and research skills. Students are encouraged to sharpen their research skills by conducting independent research on a particular topic, beyond the information taught to them during training. It is important for students to do this in order to empower themselves to respond to questions posed to them in their presentations to community members.

Students are randomly grouped into teams of ten for purposes of giving their presentations. This encourages teamwork, teaches students how to support each other, and how to work with different personalities in order to achieve a common goal. Leadership skills are also taught, in that each group is required to elect a team leader to lead the group. It is no surprise that groups disagree and encounter the common challenges that are associated with team work. Yet, inevitably, it has been found that students learn to compromise and to work together as an effective unit. These are valuable skills that will serve students well in any work environment in their future legal careers.

Students have the challenging task of breaking down complex legal concepts and presenting them to lay people in simple terms that may be easily understood. This means that they must do more than memorise the legal concepts – they need to thoroughly understand the concepts as well. The ability to communicate legal concepts clearly and simply is a skill which will certainly serve students well when they engage in community service when they are in practice.

As part of the training, students are taught presentation skills. In order to fine tune these skills, each group is required to give a ‘mock’ presentation to the class on a topic covered in the programme. While a mock presentation cannot fully prepare students for any unpredictable situations they may encounter in their presentations to their communities, it provides them with an opportunity to test their skills on the class. Constructive feedback is given to each presenter, not only by the trainer, but also by the other students listening to the presentation. In the course of the debriefing, students learn how to improve their personal presentation skills. This enhances their speaking skills, and develops their confidence to speak in public.

Most importantly, students are given exposure to the communities in which they live since they gain first-hand experience of the needs of such communities. Engagement with communities, and in particular disadvantaged communities and vulnerable members of society, inculcates in students the importance and value of using their knowledge and skills to give back to their communities. Unless students work among their communities, they will not be able to fully understand and assist them. This exposure plays an important role in preparing law students for the community service work to be undertaken by them when they are candidate legal practitioners.

Students are permitted to choose the institutions in their communities at which they wish to give their presentations, subject to prior approval by the Street Law Coordinator. These institutions include schools, prisons, police stations, old age homes and any other community groups.


It is evident that a street law programme, as outlined above, empowers students with practical legal knowledge, skills and confidence to bring about positive changes for themselves and their communities. The programme not only sharpens students’ skills to become diligent lawyers but also exposes them to a form of community service. In light of the emphasis by the LPA on community service, we implore universities to develop and enhance their Street Law programmes, and encourage all LLB students to participate in such a programme. Doing so will expose law students to community service, and will prepare them for the fulfilment of the community service requirement under the LPA once they are in practice.

Rehana Cassim BA (cum laude) LLB (cum laude) LLM (cum laude) (Wits) LLD (Unisa) is an Associate Professor in the Mercantile Law Department at Unisa and a member of the Unisa Street Law programme and Shaida Mahomed LLB (Unisa) is a legal practitioner at the Unisa Law Clinic and the Unisa Street Law Coordinator in Pretoria.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2020 (Nov) DR 26.

De Rebus