You are here

‘Pro bono is no substitute for legal aid’

The access to justice gap in 2014 is bigger than ever. John van der Luit-Drummond speaks to representatives of the Access to Justice Foundation, the London Legal Support Trust and LawWorks

7 November 2014

Add comment

This week marked the 13th annual National Pro Bono Week (NPBW) which aims to celebrate the range and impact of pro bono work undertaken by the legal profession during the past year. SJ spoke to Martha de la Roche (MD), Bob Nightingale (BN) and Nick Gallagher (NG)about the challenges facing members of the public, lawyers and pro bono initiatives across the country.

Can you explain the importance of NPBW to your organisations?

BN: You’ve caught me at a bad moment when I have yet to muster the will to overcome bitterness at the government’s dissimulation and carry on supporting the provision of the best services that can be provided with the, now meagre, resources available. In that effort, pro bono is an essential and very welcome element. I can’t bring myself to cheer about pro bono even though it is, in itself, a wonderful thing.

NG: For us it’s a chance to focus on, and celebrate, what can be achieved through pro bono advice and to remind policy makers, lawyers and the public of the role it can play. This year it’s more important than ever because it’s the first NPBW when we can see, over the course of a whole year, the really devastating effects of the changes to legal aid for people seeking access to justice.

Why is it important for lawyers and law students to provide pro bono services?

MD: More people than ever before are struggling to access justice. Pro bono does not have the capacity to replace the loss of services seen by the funding and legal aid cuts but the services – the majority of which are initial advice rather than casework – it can provide are incredibly and increasingly important to those who, without access to pro bono services, simply would not have legal advice or support in any form.

NG: They are vital. Pro bono provision is simply impossible without them. A role LawWorks can play is to enable and support their work by brokering connections between clinics and law firms or providing training to improve skills. In fact a lot of our focus going forward will be on making sure we have increased our own expertise so we can skill-up more lawyers to give more specialised assistance.

Can firms, universities, and clinics be doing more than they already are?

MD: The profession has a strong commitment to pro bono and this can be seen in the work carried out across the country. There is, of course, unmet need, but we continue to be impressed by the dedication of the profession.

BN: I have seen and managed pro bono advice surgeries for decades and they provide an excellent service within their limitations. Thousands of people each year gain help they wouldn’t get without pro bono services. On numerous occasions, I have watched individual pro bono help being given which has been brilliant. But the government is tainting it by spinning pro bono as a substitute for the legal aid that they so recently cut and it’s nothing of the sort.

NG: It is remarkable what they already do, but there are so many people in need who just aren’t getting access to justice. To honour the profession’s commitment, LawWorks has to ensure it is focusing its support and understands what a good pro bono service looks like. Above all we need to build our expertise so we can help solicitors and law firms build theirs. This will support the development of a more sophisticated ‘end to end’ service for people in need. 

Has the work of your organisations become harder since cuts to legal aid?

NG: Yes, because of the increasing access to justice gap for clients. Of course, the job of solicitors under pressure to deliver access to justice has also become harder. As a result we can see that we need to collaborate more and ensure complementarity with other projects. The new litigants in person (LIP) support strategy will give us a great chance to do this with other organisations such as the Personal Support Unit (PSU), the Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau and Law for Life.

We are also being approached by clinics and universities across the country and by firms who also want to collaborate. We also need to make sure that what we do will complement exciting new initiatives like the Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono which a group of firms has just announced.

MD: The Foundation does not itself provide legal advice and so has not been directly affected by the cuts to legal aid. However, the Foundation has seen the impact of the loss of legal aid funding to organisations which have relied on it to provide legal advice services; we have seen an increase in applications to keep services running or stop advice organisations closing altogether. In our most recent grants round we have received applications for more than five times the funds we have available to distribute.

BN: While the LLST does support some pro bono services, our main role is to raise funds to maintain specialist legal advice services, where expert lawyers and caseworkers provide casework and representation to people whose problems are beyond those that pro bono services can help, and who are often unable to act on advice however good it is. They need help, and often long and complicated help. Those agencies have been more than decimated by the cuts.

They are a skeleton of what they were even five years ago. Most high-street solicitors have been driven out of social welfare legal aid even in areas of law where it is still available. So while the specialist advice agencies have shrunk to a rump, the need has grown hugely.

What are the specific recent challenges seen by your organisations?

MD: It has always been notoriously difficult to raise funds for pro bono and free legal advice work. The economic climate and the changes to free legal advice services have increased the demand for funding but have made fund generation more challenging. The Foundation works hard to compensate for this by pursuing new schemes to get additional untapped resources into the sector. 

NG: The biggest challenge is the growing need. This increased after the changes to legal aid by hundreds of thousands. It is orders of magnitude greater than realistic levels of pro bono work. The access to justice gap is enormous. For example, figures show that in 2013/14 nearly 250,000 fewer people received help through legal aid in social welfare law categories, including areas such as housing and debt, compared to 2012/13.

We can’t bridge that gap, which is one reason why we argue so strongly for a properly funded legal aid system Another challenge is confusion about when legal aid is available and clinics in our network can help ensure people know when they are still entitled. 

What kinds of people are being directed to pro bono initiatives? Has there been an increase in any one practice area?

NG: It’s the whole spectrum of people in real need. It could be an elderly person who needs support to stay living independently or a family living in terrible housing conditions; it could be someone who is disabled or lives with an illness, or their carer. Clinics also see many people who have been unfairly dismissed or who are discriminated against at work, and men and women who are working for less than the minimum wage.

LawWorks also brokers legal help for charities and community groups that support people in need. Often the issues of individual people come in clusters and we need to make sure that we do our part to strengthen other sources of support that can help tackle these.

One that stands out is welfare benefits, where we saw a doubling in the first year after the introduction of the legal aid cuts. In the same period, immigration and asylum work increased by 76 per cent and family cases by over 40 per cent. But we know this is only a fraction of the total needed. SJ