Oslo and the Legal Aid Clinic – how can a bunch of students improve the life of a metropolis?

Jussbuss early history

Written by: Ida Maria Andenæs Galtung and Carlo Epifanio

A bus of young legal aiders – who are they?

Back in 1971 a bunch of law students from the University of Oslo started a project on a bus. Driving the streets of the Norwegian capital and its outskirts, the students decided to map the need for legal aid. It turned out to be a major need for legal support among the general public, so the group started a free law informing service to help provide equal rights. With their mobile bus, the students reached out to all the corners of the city and managed to help the vulnerable groups of Oslo. This bus became the student-managed legal aid clinic “Jussbuss”, which is Norwegian for “Law bus”. Jussbuss still exists today and currently consists of roughly 30 employees working with free legal aid every day. Despite not providing urban services per se, it is legitimate to wonder if and how the Legal Aid Clinic model can contribute to cities and reduce the number of conflicts in society. This story is worth sharing because of its creativity and courage to improve: Jussbuss is certainly an inspiring example for those who are reading these lines.

Can the clinic reduce conflicts in society? 

It can be alienating for many people to enter and reach out for help from a law firm. If it is not the formal, corporate, and suit dressed-atmosphere that scares you off, the price of the consultation will. At least for many people. That is why the clinic specialized in a few areas of legal practice to benefit disadvantaged social groups. They give concrete advice in specific cases while at the same time gain knowledge about the structural oppression at play. The clinics’ decennial activity resulted in an expertise in immigration law, prison law, debt law and financial assistance, and social security benefits. There is also a specific wage-limit for clients as the main raison d’etre of the clinic is to reach out to those with the biggest need of help. In some cases, the clinic manages to successfully defend its clients rights. In cases where the clinic is not able to achieve the client’s goal, the task at hand is to explain the legal situation to the client. It is important that the clients understand how the clinic worked for a different outcome of their case, but also to understand the final result. An important principle at Jussbuss has been “help to self help” and making the clients understand the legality of the situations they are in. 

Jussbuss doing outreach work, and handing out law information brochures.

The research that led to the organization Jussbuss kept inspiring legal aid research. The findings are clear: the need for legal aid is proportionally larger in the poor neighbourhoods. As the project is no longer located on a bus, but in an office in the center east side of Oslo, one of the project’s fundamental activities is to reach the client groups who might not contact them otherwise. The most vulnerable groups often don’t ask for help themselves. In many cases people in difficult situations may not be able to sort out the legal issues of their life problems. This is why certain help centers, Caritas, and specific neighborhoods of the city are chosen as a base to take in new cases and for informing people in an informal atmosphere. By staying mobile, the clinic makes the city smaller and tries to reduce class distinctions. Weekly, a part of the team travels outside Oslo and visits organizations, schools, and prisons to give answers to legal questions.  

A challenge for the clinic is the procedure to ensure that the advice they give is correct. Many are surprised to hear how independently students give legal aid, and move around the country with such authority. In the short term, their work can be solely informative, as the students can’t  give more than general information when they travel. However, when they need to give concrete advice in cases, they take them to the office, study them and let them go through group meetings which usually take place once a week. This is an important learning mechanism for knowledge and expertise reproduction. 

Independent governance, active research role, and internal organization based on learning

Somehow surprisingly, the clinic remains a popular place for law students to work since 1971. The students have to complete two years of law school to apply for a job at the clinic. This is to ensure that they know the basic legal method before starting. Then they have to take leave from the university to work full time at the clinic for one year. As a final stage, they are obliged to work 20 percent of their time for six months to train the new students who start working. It is all based on helping each other to understand the law and working close together. With this system, the students usually have to postpone their graduation for a year. For most students it is still worth doing because of the engaging environment and work experience. Also, the students receive a small salary from the university, the size of a university monthly Norwegian stipend. 

The students learn to see where the law and the legal system comes short and apply their expertise in the public sphere. Indeed, through legal political work they can address the authorities and politicians, by participating in different foras. Students debate in the media and speak in parliamentary hearings, for example on how the laws should be formed. After finishing their year at Jussbuss, some students come back later on to do some research and write their thesis on questions related to the legal aid gap in society. 

A conflict resolver in the urban arena

The Legal Aid Clinic turned out to be a successful model in Norway. Shortly after the establishment of Jussbuss, a sister organisation providing legal aid for women was established in Oslo. Jussbuss was also replicated in other major cities such as Tromsø and Bergen, and it elicits international interest by people who want to bring the project to their city outside Norway. The clinics work independently and exchange their activity during annual meetings in national congresses. A key-necessary factor for such success is an informal yet supportive relationship between the clinic and the Norwegian state. Even though the clinic works actively with legal politics, and sometimes criticizes the government, the clinic has been well respected and supported financially throughout the years. The state recognizes that the clinic deploys a welfare service to groups of society which are often difficult to reach. Despite the occasional need for pro-bono lawyers when handling court cases, the students function as a true bridge between neglected communities and society. 

The growing multicultural settings of cities make it necessary for lawyers to understand how the law and the norms work in different cultures or society layers. Law and legal considerations might need a contextual perspective for the premises to function for the groups intended, as reminded by Hellum and Taj in the project of informing Pakistani women in Norway  to help solve their problems. For a joint effort including legal advice and sociological considerations, the positive relationship of the clinic with other organizations and the state in an independent autonomy of their governance is crucial. 

The new challenges that cities are facing, such as open data and active democratic processes, call for a higher awareness among citizens. Cities can be governed effectively only with a consistent contribution of participation and activism in the decision making process. Knowledge is the first key step for involvement and engagement. Bridging such gaps in citizen awareness, and filling an economic gap, is an efficient way to be in touch with people living at the margins. Lawyers can be fundamental actors in the making of collaborative cities. The work of the clinic is inspirational because it shows their new role: a relation between communities and lawyers as city builders.