Can Tension Between Legal Aid and Pro Bono Be Resolved?

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Rather than criticise pro bono charities for “overselling” themselves, legal aid lawyers need to work with them, argues Alasdair Stewart

Last month the Legal Action Group warned pro bono charities against making too much noise about the amount of pro bono assistance that they are helping to support – and the danger this poses. “The pro bono movement must not fall into the trap of overselling itself to a government that is all too happy to adopt it as an alternative to legal aid and other publicly funded advice services,” it asserted.

However, in the wake of a rather low key national pro bono week in November, my experience is that, if anything, pro bono undersells itself. As the Legal Action Group’s aim is to promote equal access to justice, one would assume that they are aware of the stance taken by the pro bono charities on legal aid – contained within the agreed pro bono protocol, which states: “Pro Bono Legal Work is always only an adjunct to, and not a substitute for, a proper system of publicly funded legal services.”

Indeed, so worried were the charities about the impact of the impending cuts, they appeared before the House of Commons Justice Committee and categorically stated: “If there is an assumption that some body…will step into the breach and fill what looks to be an enormous gaping hole that is going to be created when no social welfare law legal aid provision will be provided, and if there is an assumption that that will be by lawyers doing more pro bono work, I have to disabuse you of that, I am afraid.”.

Could it be any clearer? Pro bono work depends on the infrastructure and local community knowledge provided by legal aid to operate effectively. One can’t exist without the other.

In Glasgow, where I was heavily involved in the Strathclyde University law clinic as a student, I saw a similar division. Legal aid practitioners would constantly complain that the student law clinic represented a threat to their funding, and that they were able to deal with all cases sent their way.

Yet week after week, we would receive enquiries from individuals who had travelled across Glasgow and found no one willing to take their issue on. Looking at it from an objective point of view, who would choose to use a service delivered by students (albeit supervised) rather than a fully qualified and experienced solicitor?

Fortunately, in some parts of the country, there are great relationships between legal aid practitioners and local pro bono services. If only this could be replicated more widely, so that pro bono services felt confident referring clients to legal aid practices, and equally, legal aid practices confident referring clients with simpler non-urgent issues to a pro bono service, this would enable everyone to work more efficiently and effectively.

Only by working together will the legal profession as a whole be able to provide the government with the cold, hard facts on the serious implications the legal aid cuts will have on local communities, and make an accurate calculation to determine the assistance that is available.

Alasdair Stewart works for a pro bono charity