Helen’s Royal Experience at the King’s College Summer School 2012

During July / August 2012 Helen Taylor attended the King’s College Summer School, here is her story.

Pre-departure preparation

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money.  Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”  This amusing piece of advice offered by Susan Heller is unfortunately the reality of overseas travel, particularly for a South African student like me traveling to the UK with a limited budget made even more limited by the current Rand/Pound exchange rate.  I literally had to “save every penny” for my UK trip, but my London summer school experience would not have been possible without the generous travel bursary I received from the Postgraduate and International Office.

Apart from this challenging task of budgeting for an overseas trip, I spent several months researching the various summer schools offered by institutions in the UK.  The Law Summer School at King’s College University of London stood out as the course that would best complement my studies as a final-year law student, in terms of both structure and content.  It was a three-week summer school that facilitated an intensive engagement with areas of the law that particularly interest me.  More than this, I knew that King’s College is one of the top universities in the world, particularly for law, and that an experience of study there would be invaluable for me in deciding my future study and career plans.

After sending in my application and receiving confirmation of my acceptance into the Summer School, the next step was my visa application.  I had to apply for a student visitor visa, which requires proof of unconditional acceptance from the institution I would be studying at, so I had to wait for the documentation from King’s College to arrive by post before I could hand in my visa application.  This delay, combined with the fact that the British High Commission was being inundated with visa applications leading up to the Olympics, made for a nerve-wracking process but everything went smoothly and I collected my visa with a few days to spare before my departure.

The Summer School at King’s College University of London

Although the King’s College Summer School took place in July, I decided to make full use of my holiday by flying out immediately after my last university exam, thus spending a total of six weeks in the UK.  I spent my first week in Cambridge to find out about opportunities for postgraduate study at the university and to meet some of the staff in the Law Department.  I was warmly welcomed by the staff and these meetings have given me clarity about what I would like to study next year.  As it was the last week of the university term, the town was buzzing with students slipping into summer holiday mode.  I was fortunate to meet many students and experience something of student life in Cambridge.  After this memorable sojourn in Cambridge, I took the train to St Andrews in Scotland, where I was based for the next ten days of my trip.  During this time I was able to explore a bit of Scotland, including the beautiful city of Edinburgh, and enjoy a relaxed pace of life in the more rural parts.

The highlight of my trip was, without a doubt, the Summer School at King’s College in London.  I stayed at the Stamford Street Apartments, which is the college accommodation situated on the Southbank.  It was wonderful to stay within walking distance of all the major landmarks in central London.  All our classes were at the Strand Campus of King’s College, so each day I enjoyed a ten-minute walk across Waterloo Bridge to get to class, admiring the London Eye, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben to the west and the beautiful skyline with St Paul’s Cathedral to the east.  The Strand Campus itself is a beautiful building situated in the legal heart of London, just down the road from the Royal Courts of Justice, the Inns of Court, the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court) and all the biggest law firms in London.

The specific course I did at the Summer School was “Introduction to the English Legal System”, a broad but intensive and detailed study of the main aspects of English Law.  It was presented by Dr Thomas MacManus, who worked as a lawyer in New York and London before joining King’s College.  We covered the basic principles of the main subject areas in English law, such as contract, tort and defamation, but we also focused on the history of the common law system, the sources of English law and the Magna Carta, the structure of the UK courts and the jury system, the criminal justice system, and European Law.

What made this Summer School a particularly stimulating and enriching experience was the way we engaged with the work through class discussions.  There were about 25 people in our class, almost all of whom are finishing off their law degrees or already practising law.  These students came from all over the world, including France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Russia, China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Canada, the United States, Brazil and the UK.  As South Africa is one of the few countries in the world to have a hybrid legal system (as a result of the influence of both the Dutch and the English in our colonial history), I was placed in an interesting position in our class discussions.  Some students were from common law jurisdictions (like the US and the UK) while the others were from civil law jurisdictions (like the continental European countries), whereas I was able to relate to both perspectives because of our hybrid system.

As part of the formal assessment for the course, we had to write an essay and do a presentation, but the structure of the course was flexible enough to allow for much informal debate and it was in this way that we challenged each other and also learnt a great deal.  This way of structuring our classes followed the British tutorial system, where the tutor acts more as a facilitator than a lecturer.  I’ve only experienced this at a postgraduate level at Stellenbosch University, when I did an Honours degree in English, and now also in my final semester of law in some of our electives.  I prefer this interactive way of learning to big lectures because the students have the opportunity to grapple with the difficult issues in discussion with one another while still drawing on the knowledge and skills of the tutor.

The course made use of King’s central location by spending time in the nearby courts (the Royal Courts of Justice, the Old Bailey and the Supreme Court), exploring the Inns of Court as well as visiting the British Library and the British Film Institute.  One of my personal highlights was the day I spent with a friend in Parliament, where we sat in on the highly publicised Parliamentary enquiry into the security contract provided by G4S for the Olympic Games.  It was amazing to see angry politicians in action as they ruthlessly interrogated the CEO of G4S!  When I got home later that day, I was even more excited when I spotted myself in the film footage of the main headline on Sky news!

There was also plenty of time outside of class to have fun together and form strong friendships speaking about less academic things.  King’s College even has a nightclub called “Tutu’s” after Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who studied at King’s.  A few of our long summer evenings were spent chatting and enjoying a drink together at the university bar overlooking the Thames.  In the three short weeks I spent at King’s College, I made some wonderful friends and have special memories of the times we spent together.  London is a magical city that never fails to inspire and impress me.  There is so much to explore, marvel at and enjoy that it is impossible to be bored for even a second.  It’s no wonder Samuel Johnson said, “He who is tired of London is tired of life”.

Return to Stellenbosch

It was hard to leave London after such an amazing time of learning and growth, but the time I spent at King’s College remains a part of me and will continue to shape and inspire me as long as it lives on in my memory.  Spending time studying at King’s College and getting an insight into the work of solicitors and barristers who practise in the legal heart of London have given me a much clearer idea of what it is like to practise law and what I would like to do as a lawyer.  My summer school experience has encouraged me to make the most of every opportunity that comes my way while I’m still at Stellenbosch and to strive to develop to my full potential.  It has also encouraged me to dare to dream big, because I know that the academic experience I’ve gained from being at Stellenbosch University has prepared me well for tackling the challenge of post-graduate study in the UK.