Student lawyer wins national award for supporting homeless community

  • Date

    Fri 28 Apr 23

Ben O'Connell

A law student who helped secure homes for some of Colchester’s most vulnerable people has won a national award.

Benjamin O’Connell, Student Director at Essex Law Clinic, scooped the top prize in the Best Contribution by an Individual Student category at the Law Works Student Pro Bono Awards 2023.

He was crowned the winner during a ceremony in the House of Commons on 27 April.

The award recognises Benjamin’s success working with Colchester charity Beacon House, where he helped overturn 18 incorrect homeless assistance application decisions. His work ensured those individuals and families affected were able to secure accommodation offers.

Through the Housing and Homelessness Project at Essex Law Clinic Benjamin gathered and reviewed data to help streamline the process for making successful applications and provided vital advice to staff as well as those facing homelessness or precarious housing.

A delighted Benjamin said: "It was an extremely humbling experience attending the awards and meeting just a handful of the people doing pro-bono work across the country.

"I never stopped while I was doing this work to think about how much I was doing because there was always more to do. But now being recognised in this way I feel incredibly proud.

"The ceremony and award have really inspired me to carry on providing for those most in need and I have two months left at the university which I plan to use to continue helping as many people as possible before taking my next steps."

Benjamin, who is in the third year of an LLB Law, was inspired to join Essex Law Clinic in his first year because he “wanted to experience law on the frontline.”

The experience of using his expertise to help others has been a rewarding one: “You get to witness the impact you make on lives. Seeing weight being lifted from a client’s shoulders because of advice you’ve been able to provide is very powerful,” he said.

As Student Director, Benjamin has been responsible for representing students on the Clinic’s management committee, ensuring their feedback is heard and impacting the continuous improvement of the services the Clinic provides.

The experience of working in a team, face-to-face with clients has given him vital professional skills which he hopes will make him more employable.

“I’ve also learnt a huge amount about myself. My motivations, my passion, my approach, my mindset and my limits. All have been tested and have changed over my time in the Clinic and I am confident in saying I emerge from that experience as a much more confident (and hopefully employable) individual,” he said.

Essex Law Clinic Director, Professor Donald Nicolson OBE, said: “We are extremely proud of Ben. Over the last three years he has made a huge contribution to the Law Clinic and the community we serve. I have worked with hundreds of students in law clinics over the last four decades, but Ben is one of a handful who stand out in terms of his passion for improving the lives of others.

“He has been an inspirational role model for his colleagues and a constant source of improvements to our activities. We will miss him so much when he graduates - though I strongly suspect he will be back with us in future years to continue his commitment to those in need of legal services!”