The big challenge of 2017 is access to justice, and law students shouldn’t sit back and watch the wreckage

Take on the fight

emoji-muscles

Since the recent demise of the civil legal aid budget, the profession has become pro bono crazy. But sometimes it can be difficult to cut through the noise. Here Michael Walker, a recent law graduate who helped establish his office’s pro bono programme as a paralegal, explains why he thinks it’s so important aspiring lawyers don’t just turn their backs on social welfare.

The beginning of the year: it’s not just a time to be squished into an overcrowded nightclub, trying to balance your £8 drink while craning your neck to catch a glimpse of that guy from ‘Geordie Ex Only Way to be Made in Chelsexx on a Beach Shore’. It’s a time to look ahead to the year hurtling towards us and try to decipher the challenges that lay in wait.

For young legal things like ourselves, 2017 has thrown the gauntlet at our feet already and the question is how we will respond.

The Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, recently gave the LawWorks annual pro bono speech where he spoke of this gauntlet: the lack of legal representation and the severe obstacles to access to justice. He argued that we need to accept that these obstacles aren’t for disappearing, so we need to work out ways to compensate for them.

At the heart of these problems of access to justice is LASPO, the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which eviscerated £350 million from the legal aid budget by stripping entire areas of law from its coverage.

This was supplemented by some nasty secondary legislation, one example of which made it more difficult for domestic violence victims to obtain legal aid (this was only overturned by the Court of Appeal earlier this year, but it took its toll. Rights of Women found that 53% of domestic violence victims chose not to pursue family court cases as they could not get legal aid).

Some facts about LASPO

The number of all legal aid advice cases has dropped by 75% since the LASPO cuts in April 2013, and are continuing to fall.

Now, that’s generally. If you focus on particular areas, it becomes starker.

Family law? 80% of cases involve at least one party as a litigant in person. One impact of this is domestic abuse victims not being protected as effectively during cross examination, as well as the obvious issues that stem from complex and emotional proceedings being muddied without qualified representation.

Or social security appeals, which is an area crying out for law students and graduates to help. Often vulnerable and up against a shockingly antagonistic system, most appellants go unrepresented. If you look at Belfast alone, with new welfare changes about to be introduced, a scheme which provided representation for 1,000 people a year has recently lost all of its funding — that means despite an impending increase in appeals, there will be even less people available to represent them.

We, as law students and graduates, do not have the privilege of just sitting back and surveying this wreckage. Just like when a disaster takes place within earshot of a doctor, they are duty bound to run towards it; we need to adopt the same mindset.

How students can make their mark

Bizarrely, there is a glinting silver lining in how all-encompassing the changes have been; the fact they affect so many tiers of law means there is room for everyone with a law degree, or currently studying for one, to get involved.

Etherton’s speech is a great authority on this. He spoke specifically about what university students should do to help fill the devastating void. And remember, if still seeking that ever-elusive training contract, pro bono will massively add to your CV. If looking for a pupillage, it’s almost a prerequisite.

Pitching pro bono to your firm

We need those who have gained their training contract to carry their pro bono experience forward and ensure that pro bono is within the very DNA of their office.

Look at your firm’s average pro bono hours spend. If it’s at the top end, fantastic, the schemes are there to be involved in. If it is at the bottom, then you need to ask yourself how you can change that. By setting out the developmental, reputational and business benefits to pro bono for the firm, you can persuade ‘The Man’ of its genuine merits beyond pro bono’s moral imperative.

And the benefits really are endless. Developmentally, it provides an opportunity for paralegals, legal secretaries and trainees to face a new level of responsibility. The impact on confidence cannot be understated; at my current firm, I’ve seen volunteers grow through their pro bono work, and it positively impacts how they approach their billable work.

As for reputation, more than shining a glowing light upon the firm, it helps engage and keep the best employees, in the same way providing other in-work benefits do. From a HR standpoint, it’s taking out more birds with a single stone than even the illustrious cycle-to-work scheme does!

Business-wise, pro bono allows you to team up with key clients to strengthen a strategically important relationship. For example, working alongside a major software company to impact a free advice centre allows you to team up with their inside counsel.

A call to arms

The reality of access to justice in the UK must act as the most colossal call to arms for every single one of us. Lives can be changed dramatically by implementing these programmes, which is illustrated most inspiringly by the work of law students at Avon & Bristol Law Centre.

If 2016 has been something to complain about, 2017 will be the year when the consequences are reaped from the seeds sown in the previous year. There has been a clear challenge put to each one of us as we wander over the crest of this year into the next. This is no one else’s cause — this is solely ours. It is in our backyard and only we have the tools to save it.

Michael Walker is a law graduate from the University of Cambridge.

For all the latest news, features, events and jobs, sign up to Legal Cheek’s weekly newsletter here.

11 Comments

Jones Day Partner

Pro bono work isn’t going to keep my brat children in private school and my trainee/mistress in the, uh, position I can’t describe because of LC’s fascist moderators.

(16)(1)
Kailey

Thanks for helping me to see things in a dieferfnt light.

(0)(0)
Rzbg

The ability to do pro bono work can be limited by income. So you’re lucky enough to get Wednesdays off to give LiP support at Willesden County Court. Good on you but count yourself lucky.

(6)(0)
Anonymous

As a legal aid lawyer I already do more than enough pro bono to last a life time! That’s the way the system is geared!

It’s done as a matter of course because it needs doing because people need help, not to enhance the firms reputation, to earn my self brownie points to add to a huge salary or so I can pat my self on the back for being a social minded little thing

It’s done because people need it and because true access to justice is a thing of the past

That being said, should commercial firms be forced out do pro bono to plug the gaps left by LASPO? No, LASPO needs a considerable overhaul, and access to justice needs to be reconsidered on every level

Why should lawyers undertake unpaid work to plug the gaps? It’s admirable, but it’s not a solution and it doesn’t fix the underlying problems!

(11)(0)
Anonymous

All very noble, but unfortunately this directly assists the Government in its agenda to reduce funded representation in these areas of law.

Why pay legal aid for a specialist if they can point to statistics showing x% of people do have some kind of representation, even if it’s a corporate paralegal with no experience in the field?

It is easy to forget sometimes that the clients in these areas are real people, not just opportunities for law students, paralegals and legal secretaries to bolster their CVs!

(12)(0)
Air Hair Lair

Hmm , the Government are de-funding access to legal representation, which strikes me that this action is bad for Legal Profession, and bad for low income clients, but I read on other threads that Legal Pro’s vote Tory because they might save a bit of tax. Apparently the difference is about £2000 per £100,000, the loose change you spend on stationery or parking .meters. I don’t think that’s good value, given the suffering this new Tory regime is intent on inflicting. These new Tories are not Heseltine, Clarke and Major, are they, or frankly even Thatcher, they’re attacking their own voting base, Judges, Doctors, Lawyers,Scientists, Bankers and Business, yet we hear they’d win a General Election.

(0)(0)
Anonymous

Students should stick to studying and focusing on graduating with good grades

(4)(0)
Anonymous

Pro bono work is no substitute for a properly funded legal aid system which helps those in need.
Difference in Doctors responding to an emergency in the street which is lets face it a rare occasion and doesnt involve that doctor being responsible for continued follow up care and a qualified solicitor or barrister giving pro bono advice is that the vast majority of Drs are already making a decent yearly salary from the government. Many young lawyers relying on legal aid work are not.

(3)(0)
Anonymous

“As for reputation, more than shining a glowing light upon the firm, it helps engage and keep the best employees, in the same way providing other in-work benefits do.”

Really? Forcing your employees to do more work for free is a way to attract and keep the best employees?

Mind expanding on that submission?

(8)(0)
Dragon

Your cranium must be prctioteng some very valuable brains.

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.