Newcastle to London: A pro bono odyssey
Jess Campbell relives her gruelling 420-mile cycle ride to raise much-needed funds for the celebrated Bar Pro Bono Unit
In 2016 the Bar Pro Bono Unit celebrates its 20th anniversary. Since its creation, the unit has grown its provision by offering access to the Bar for those most in need of legal help. In the years following LASPO the unit took measures to manage the increased demand. However, it cannot and should not be expected to meet the demand that the removal of legal aid has created. Nevertheless, we do what we can to help.
Our anniversary posed the perfect opportunity to take stock of the achievements of advice organisations and lawyers in England and Wales and how we collaborate to support litigants in person. So it was with naÃ¯ve enthusiasm that I agreed to cycle the length of the country, stopping in major cities to celebrate pro bono initiatives in each community.
On 21 September, I embarked on a 420-mile cycle starting in Newcastle at Trinity Chambers. Here Judge Charnock-Neal illustrated the LiPs journey, likening it to being abroad without a translator, guidebook, or mobile phone. However, help is on hand in the shape of the pro bono lawyers and advisers who guide litigants through this foreign legal landscape on a daily basis.
I travelled through Northumberland and Durham to Leeds and Zenith Chambers, which is home to the 2016 Bar Pro Bono Award winner, John Collins. Just in the last five years, John, who has 60 years' experience at the Bar, has taken on 11 pro bono cases. He is creating a culture of pro bono among the junior members of chambers and demonstrates genuine commitment to access to justice.
My favourite day of cycling took me through Yorkshire and over the top of the Peak District to St John's Chambers in Manchester. From there I went down to St Philips Chambers in Birmingham before a three-day adventure through canal routes and country lanes in all the 'shires': Warwick, Northampton, and Buckingham. I arrived at Atkin Chambers in London after eight days of cycling 50 miles per day to a reception with pro bono barristers, frontline agency staff, judges, the chairman of the Bar, and the dedicated unit staff.
The cycle did not come without its challenges, like the day I got two punctures, or when I cycled along a canal that had no path, after heavy rain, which provided a pretty muddy outcome. The hills were doable, if steep, and short breaks were definitely required, but some of the 'cycle paths' were not suitable for even the most robust mountain bikes. Believe it or not, this all added to the adventure and did not deter me from what I needed to achieve. As with anything we do, without a reason why, we will not reach our goals.
My reason was simple: the unit's applicants and barristers. I thought of the barrister who helped the mother of a disabled daughter to claim at the last minute that her daughter's school discriminated against her by consistently failing to comply with her healthcare plan and excluding her rather than making reasonable adjustments.
I was reminded of the applicant who was homeless and had significant mental and physical health concerns but whose counsel provided advice in conference, allowing the applicant to pursue realistic avenues to resolve his homelessness and, with counsel's advice, subsequently obtain legal aid solicitors.
I thought of the junior member of our panel who provided advice and representation, gaining permission to appeal against the dismissal of a small claim, and of the senior counsel who took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
It was clear at the receptions throughout the country that this was also the motivation for our friends in the North. Whether working at the Personal Support Units, Citizens Advice, law clinics and legal advice centres, or providing pro bono services, we were all doing our best to step up and help where we could.
Inevitably, there are times when we cannot help. The unit will use the £2,365 generously donated for this tour to realise the change required to sustain efficiently for the next 20 years. We will streamline our processes and launch an online application form in the coming months, aiming to better support volunteering and hopefully match more applicants with barristers.