There was plenty to chew on for future lawyers during National Pro Bono Week: FLN considers the key points.
Reforms to the justice system have left as many as 650,000 people without access to legal aid and is forcing a re-think about how advice can be delivered.
As government ministers set their minds to solving this problem, the potential of law students to help fill the legal aid gap is coming into increasingly sharp focus. Back in April it was reported that lawyers-to-be could be brought in to " hold the hands" of divorcing couples as they negotiate the legal system. Then last month family justice minister Simon Hughes went a step further and suggested that law students could staff in-court advice centres from where they would assist litigants-in-person in wider family law cases.
These moves to harness fledgling legal expertise are likely to gain momentum over the months ahead. The challenge will be in developing legal education programmes that enable time-strapped hard-working law students to volunteer.
Already law firms and barristers' chambers look on pro bono work extremely favourably as they bid to differentiate between applicants during the graduate recruitment process. In particular, they like it when students have seen cases through from start to finish – which is why time-consuming but worthwhile volunteering with organisations like the Free Representation Unit (FRU), a charity that provides legal representation in employment and social security tribunals, is valuable to job-hunters as well as the clients who are assisted.
Handling such cases is hard – wannabe barrister Amy Woolfson recently blogged about how she failed FRU's entry test for volunteers the first time around despite getting a first in her degree – but those who persist and get first-hand tribunal experience are likely to be well-received at a time when the stretched justice system is never far from the news.
According to pro bono surveys and some law firm reports, around 80% of pro bono work is done for organisations rather than individuals. While lawyers’ assistance to these charities and NGOs is undoubtedly very valuable, it does not directly assist people whose legal representation has been removed by the cuts.
Experts such as South West London Law Centres operations manager Alasdair Stewart worry that volunteering by lawyers to help individuals may actually be falling. This is not because the lawyers don’t want to help – rather, funding for law centres and advice clinics has been reduced to such a degree that the old framework for this sort of pro bono no longer functions smoothly.
Stewart continues: “Although I have not seen any reduction in my organisation, given that not-for-profits are closing across country it is almost inevitable that free legal work for individuals is falling as there are no longer the community contacts to tap into to facilitate this work.”
The hope, as articulated last week in The Lawyer by DLA Piper joint chief executive Sir Nigel Knowles, is that policy-makers will cotton on to this issue during 2015 and ensure that pro bono volunteering is directed to where help is most needed.
The lawyer fat cat stereotype rarely holds true. Last week news broke of a solicitor who had stepped into the breach to assist a vulnerable couple and their child who had been denied legal aid. According to court documents, Withy King Solicitors' Rebecca Stevens has put in 100 hours of unpaid work into the case since April.
In his judgment, head of the family division of the High Court Sir James Munby singled out Stevens for some well-deserved special praise, stating: "I am told that Ms Stevens has spent in excess of 100 hours, all unremunerated, working to resolve, thus far without success, the issue of the father’s entitlement to legal aid. This is devotion to the client far above and far beyond the call of duty".
The scope of corporate law firms' pro bono commitments is often underestimated, with all manner of long term projects – including, among many others, assistance to veterans in compensation claims against the Ministry of Defence and, on the transactional side, assistance to communities in the developing world in micro-finance initiatives. Many firms also run social welfare advice clinics in some of London's poorest areas which are together helping to ease the burden on the justice system.
Looking ahead, increasing partnership between the public and private sector on pro bono is widely foreseen. In that sense, the innovative CourtNav project – which uses a question-and-answer interface to give advice on the civil court rules in order to automatically complete court forms and documents – could be a forerunner of things to come. Developed in partnership by magic circle firm Freshfields and the Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau, the system harnesses legal, technical and organisational expertise to bring greater efficiency to an area that has previously taken up substantial amounts of lawyers' time.
Amid the various high profile advice initiatives discussed this week, many will have missed the news of the SmartLaw legal education app that is being developed by the Citizenship Foundation. The aim of the app – which features a host of questions about the legal issues arising from entertainment stories in the news and other popular culture – is to engage school children with the law from an early age. It is hoped that a handful of them will be inspired by the app to become lawyers, but central objective is to demystify the legal system to kids so that they will not be afraid to engage with it as adults – and hopefully be better equipped to operate in a society where legal aid is less plentiful.
The Citizenship Foundation – which also runs the excellent Bar Mock Trial Competition and acclaimed Lawyers in Schools programme – is looking for help from lawyers and law students to develop the app.
To get involved, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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