The Howard College School of Law was established in 1926 and has a proud record of having provided its students with justice education and clinical legal training for nearly 30 years. In the 1970s anti-apartheid academics like Professors Tony Mathews and Barend van Niekerk waged a ceaseless battle against the apartheid authorities in the lecture halls, at public meetings and in the law journals. In 1973 the Law School hosted the first Legal Aid Conference ever held in South Africa (funded by the Ford Foundation) which became the catalyst for a national clinical movement in the country. In the same year, immediately after the Conference, Professor David McQuoid-Mason founded the Law School's Legal Aid Clinic to provide legal services for the disenfranchised poor. Also in 1973 Professor Ellie Newman introduced South Africa's first compulsory Moot programme for law students. In 1978 the Law School became the first in the country to give academic credit for Legal Aid as a clinical law course.
During the 1980s the Law School's anti-apartheid activities continued with the apartheid justice system being increasingly subjected to scrutiny and criticism by members of the Law School staff in their lectures, public utterances and publications. A special course on Race and the Law (the only one of its kind in the country) was introduced to expose students to the realities of social justice in the apartheid state. The Centre for Socio-Legal Studies was established to house the Street Law programme and to provide legal education for trade unions, and the Community Law Centre (now the Community Law and Rural Development Centre) to provide para-legal services and Street Law training for rural communities. The first pilot Street Law programme in the country was established at the Law School by David McQuoid-Mason, with assistance from Professor Ed O'Brien, in 1986, and in 1987 Street Law became a credit-bearing academic clinical course in the Law School curriculum. In 1989 the Law School introduced South Africa's first Trial Advocacy LL M course which was co-taught by Professor Neil Franklin from the University of Idaho and David McQuoid-Mason. In the late 1980s, as Dean, David McQuoid-Mason established a 24 hour Legal Reaction Unit (the only one in the country) to protect students and academic staff at the University of Natal and to counter the activities of the apartheid state's Reaction Unit (Riot Squad) which harassed and intimidated anti-apartheid activists.
In the 1990s the Law School began to engage more directly with the state during and after the transition to democracy in 1994. David McQuoid-Mason was appointed to the Legal Aid Board during most of the 1990s. He was subsequently followed by Advocate Asha Ramgobin, Director of the Legal Aid Clinic. Professor George Devenish was involved in the Technical Committee mandated to draft the 1993 Interim Constitution during the Congress for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiations. After the 1994 elections Professor Karthy Govender was appointed to the Human Rights Commission. Shortly before the introduction of the new Constitution special extra-mural courses were mounted to train lawyers to deal its implications for their practice. Also during the 1990s the academic programme changed dramatically. The new Constitution permeated all aspects the conventional law courses - particularly those dealing with Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and Criminal Procedure. In 1998 a new four year undergraduate LLB programme was introduced together with a first year law course with a strong justice and clinical law component.
During the 1990s the office space of the Law Clinic was substantially increased as a result of creative architectural and sound financial initiatives by the then Director Advocate Robin Palmer. His successor, Asha Ramgobin, with assistance from Professor Peggy Maisel, completely restructured the services of the Law Clinic to reflect the demands of the new Constitution. The emphasis changed from general practice to three main areas of concern: land restitution, the rights of women and children and administrative justice. A new credit-bearing Clinical Law course was introduced. The country's first Environmental Law Institute was established at the Law School in the 1990s. At the same time the Independent Medico-Legal Unit was founded and affiliated to the Law School to provide forensic services to the families of victims of state violence. Towards the end of the 1990s Asha Ramgobin, with assistance from the Law School, and the Association of University Legal Aid Institutions (AULAI) initiated the establishment of the AULAI Trust with a generous endowment from the Ford Foundation. In 1997 David McQuoid-Mason, as President of the Society of Law Teachers of Southern Africa, appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to apologise for the inaction by the vast majority of law schools during the apartheid era. At the same hearings Asha Ramgobin arranged for a group of Clinical Law students to make representations concerning the administration of justice under apartheid.
The 21st Century has seen the Howard College Law School continue its strong tradition of justice education and clinical legal education. The Clinical Law course has grown in numbers to 60 students a year and they service a number of disadvantaged communities every week during the academic year. The Street Law course involves 85 students who teach 25 lessons a year on law, human rights and democracy to pupils in 75 high schools in the greater Durban area. The Independent Medico-Legal Unit has changed its emphasis to focus on the training of multi-disciplinary teams in forensic services, particularly in respect of crimes against women and children. Initiatives are in place to investigate the setting up of a Human Rights Centre as a regional resource to coordinate the disparate social justice and clinical law activities in the Law School and to incorporate some of them within the framework of the School's post-graduate programme.