'The idea of the debt law clinic arose, because we noticed an increasing number of people with debts at the regular legal aid clinics,' says Verheij. 'We received signals that regular legal aid clinics cannot help people with debts effectively. Debt issues are challenging for legal aid clinics because they are not purely legal; they also touch on the social domain.' Additionally, students working at legal aid clinics do not learn much about debt issues during their education. Verheij and Leclercq found, after an initial survey, that informal debt assistance providers, such as professionals in the social domain (youth support or assisted living) and volunteers at initiatives like the Food Bank or childcare, have questions about the legal aspects of debts. The debt law clinic aims to provide these helpers with legal knowledge. Verheij and Leclercq further developed their idea in collaboration with Nadja Jungmann, a lecturer in Debts and Collection at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences and a special professor of Debt Issues at the UvA.
The project has significant societal impact, as informal debt assistance providers sometimes find it easier to connect with people in debt than, for example, the municipality. 'There is a lot of shame associated with debts,' says Verheij. 'The barrier to go to the municipality's office is quite high.' Informal entities may be more successful in reaching people who feel that shame. 'And we help these informal helpers provide the right information,' Verheij adds. Law students answer questions from assistance providers directly over the phone or via email.
Law students Fiore van der Linden and Jessenia Cruzospina have already started working on the project. They conduct research and are developing a new version of a handbook for debt assistance providers. Van der Linden explains why she wanted to join the debt law clinic: 'I consider it a luxury that we can study at the university and learn new things. It is a waste not to give something back to society with that knowledge.' The students also gain practical knowledge not offered in their university education. Thus, the project, in addition to its impact on informal debt assistance providers and people in debt in Amsterdam, also has a positive impact on students.
'I consider it a luxury that we can study at the university and learn new things. It is a waste not to give something back to society with that knowledge.'Fiore van der Linden, student working at the debt law clinic.
Verheij and Leclercq applied for a grant from the Amsterdam University Fund for a preliminary study. Thanks to the allocation from the Paul F. van der Heijden Fund, part of the Amsterdam University Fund, the students were able to start their research. 'The project can have a significant societal impact on an issue that is becoming increasingly pressing,' says Verheij. 'Debts are becoming a problem for more and more people. Additionally, it is a practical project that yields results quickly.'
To ensure the clinic's future, more funding is needed. Therefore, this fall, the Amsterdam University Fund is also seeking support from donors and UvA alumni. This way, the debt law clinic can truly bring together research, education, and entrepreneurship. In the future, Verheij aims to explore more societal issues: 'The plan is to hold weekly consultations, conduct research, and ensure that the debt law clinic becomes future proof.'