The award-nominated pro bono scheme that makes students pay to plug the legal aid gap

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A “highly commended” programme charges law students nearly £400 in training fees to gain courtroom experience

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Law students are forking out almost £400 to a Law Society award-shortlisted pro bono scheme to represent clients who are not eligible for legal aid.

53 Legal Limited operates a duty advice scheme (DAS) that offers law students and graduates the opportunity to hone their advocacy skills in court, representing clients on a pro bono basis in matters concerning possession proceedings, mortgages and secured loans.

53 Legal’s DAS — which has been placing students and graduates in Willesden County Court since 2011 — is, according to its website, “run in partnership with City Law School and in service agreement with Bishop Lloyd & Jackson Solicitors”.

However the site also stresses that the London-based law school at City University is in no way involved in the commercial side of the scheme.


The programme’s fee structure — which can only be viewed once potential participants have registered and received administration approval via the 53 Legal’s website — has various levels, depending on the age and educational status of the applicant.

According to screenshots sent to Legal Cheek, current students at City Law School who are younger than 25 are offered the largest discount on training fees, of 60%. That results in a final fee payable by the student of £304. Students younger than 25 but attending a different law school are charged more, having to find an extra £76, making a total fee of £380.

Participation gets even pricier for those who have already graduated from law school and are desperately trying to gain some legal experience. Providing the law grad is younger than 28 and has never had a previous career, then a 30% discount is applied, resulting in a final training fee of £532. All other grads have to pay £570.

Training consists of six days of in-court shadowing and two days of classroom-based training. However, Legal Cheek understands that training period may be extended until the supervisor is confident the student or graduate is ready to take on cases.

The co-ordinator of 53 Legal’s DAS, Lea Christiaanson, told Legal Cheek:

I understand some people may have some difficulties with the fees, but they do represent the actual costs involved in providing the training. The plus side is that the experience itself is second to none. We guarantee our volunteers the opportunity to appear before judges — and we do so with the full support of the judiciary at the court we operate at. No other pro bono scheme can guarantee the same.

Christiaanson — who has been director of 53 Legal Limited for more than five years — stressed that the company makes no profit from the scheme, explaining:

We’d need to take on somewhere in the region of 250-plus volunteers a year in order to be able to turn a profit out of training volunteers. DAS is about quality not quantity; only eight out of 70-plus applicants were taken on in the past year.

Last month, Canary Wharf-based law firm Kawa Guimaraes & Associates was heavily criticised for charging students a “fee” to obtain experience at the firm, which specialises in employment law and clinical negligence.

Christiaanson was keen to distance 53 Legal’s DAS — which was “highly commended” at the Law Society Excellence Awards 2014 — from the actions of Kawa Guimaraes & Assosciates, explaining to Legal Cheek:

We are all aware that the law firm who was attempting to charge interns to get a reference was not appropriate, but that is not a fair, or accurate, comparison to what we do. Our training is a necessity because these roles are not generally open to those who are not fully qualified.

Sarwan Singh, director of pro bono at City Law School, told Legal Cheek:

This is a scheme which has received the endorsement of the courts, judges and most importantly the litigants in person who benefit from the scheme. At the same time, the students have also made it clear that they have found it an invaluable pro bono opportunity for both enhancing their legal skills and improving their employability, as is evidenced by the large number who wish to volunteer every year. The fact that there is a cost for the training is not unprecedented in the pro bono world, and is made known to students beforehand.

He continued:

Indeed we carefully considered the amounts charged — which are extremely competitive given the intensity of the specialist training they receive and is at special discounted rate for our students — and on balance were of the view that there was no question that students benefited overall, particularly given the scheme is entirely voluntary and the opportunity to undertake advocacy before the courts is unique.

Christiaanson declined to respond to Legal Cheek’s request for a breakdown of training costs. Likewise, northwest London-based Bishop Lloyd & Jackson declined to comment.


Not Amused

I wish to commend Legal Cheek for exposing this inherently corrupt practice.

It is a disgrace to the judiciary that they participate in this. It is exploitation of the young. Further, it is yet one more initiative to ‘bolster CVs’ which is exclusively open to children born to wealthy families. As such it is yet another disgraceful assault on equality and diversity.

The current culture is to permit, endorse or tolerate all sorts of corrupt practice in the name of ‘charity’ or in the vain pretence of doing good. I despair for those fools in power who associate with rampant capitalism in this way.



well said



I agree. Would you say the same about the £40 which the FRU charge however?



BS. It is perfectly reasonable for an organisation to try to cover its costs – the Free Representation Unit does this, for example. One of the key reasons for doing this, even if you want to donate your time and money (as a trainer) is to reduce the pool wanting to take the course.

This is legitimate because there are a great deal of students who would do this course, and then not take on any cases. Again the experience at FRU bears this out (though some of this at FRU may be due to a fall in employment law cases), many students who take the training courses never take on a case.



But, as you know, you don’t pay money for FRU. Biggest cost to student is travel…



There is a £40 fee for training. Admittedly much smaller than the case in point here – but I would imagine that most disagreement with this is as much principle as pecuniary.



As others have written, there is a fee for the FRU training courses.



Suppose I’d better put this pitchfork down.



This is excellent journalism.

As for the scheme – a disgrace to the profession and our so-called representatives.



I’m hoping this comment is sarcasm, but just in case:

This is not journalism.

Journalism places in issue in context.

A piece of journalism would have included information about the actual running costs of the scheme, the scheme’s funding structure (what exactly does City contribute?), the actual average price paid per trainee (as opposed to the maximum possible) and specifically how the professional indemnity insurance is paid for.

It might have explored how other schemes operate and contrasted the differences. FRU would have been a great place to start, as has been raised in the comments. Instead the author makes an inapt comparison to a very different sort of enterprise.

A journalist might have interviewed people trained in the scheme, judges at Willesden County Court and service users, and included information about the number of people helped by the scheme.

The author mentions the scheme was nominated for an award and was highly commended. Surely there must have been a reason, but that reason is unexplored here.

I participated in this scheme two years ago and paid less than £300. As a scholarship student who was financially strapped, I still think it was money well spent, and much better value than the BPTC or even FRU training. The training – for which a room needed to be hired – lasted two full days (unlike FRU) and each trainee received a bound manual (a handy reference I still use today in other work). I then received practical training at court at the outset and excellent on-going support throughout my involvement in the scheme. I have no doubt that the person running the scheme loses money on it.

It is worth mentioning, lest we forget, that DAS has helped hundreds of people stay in their homes and signposted additional services.

I learned more through the scheme than I learned from the BPTC itself. Unlike FRU, I was guaranteed a case every time I went to court. On busy days, I would appear in four cases a day, and the court was rarely quiet.

This is slap-dash gossip.


Not Amused

There is a very genuine fear that by attributing a morally good cause to an enterprise you can create a sort of ‘scrutiny shield’. I reject that argument and am glad that we have brave journalists who are similarly sceptical.

You have every right to be offended. But you have no right to claim that someone asking questions that you do not like is somehow illegitimate or ‘not a journalist’. It is human nature to ignore irritating facts if we have already made our minds up. You have already made your mind up – so you ignore the fact that FRU costs 10 times less than this course. You also ignore the fact that there might very well be legitimate questions to ask about FRU itself.

I simply don’t want to live in your world. One where no questions are ever asked of anyone who claims to be doing a moral good. That would be a vile world, a false world, inevitably overrun with corruption. I want to live in a world where journalists ask probing questions and are sceptical about everything they encounter.



You seem to have missed my point.

I do not take issue with journalism. I take issue with this NOT being journalism.

Surely any topic, regardless of whether it involves “a moral good”, deserves responsible treatment?

Legal Cheek did not even get the name of the entity running the scheme right.



utterly contemptable Fact…



How many years of training over and over of the same things is required ?
The legal sphere has become a con more is made from training students than from representation half the time a rotten system no wonder the medical proffesion are treated with more respect soon the law will be no more than a service industry so glad i would have retired by then shameful.



– . H it is. N . S . S . S

^ you were missing some punctuation mate.



Sadly it is still possible to buy yourself a CV



There isn’t that much going on at Willesden CC these days?

Last time I was there, it was like the Marie Celeste


T & Coffee

Whenever I’ve been there, they use one of the courts as a waiting room. It’s very peaceful. A bit like Horsham CC. Being an usher there must be bliss.

Compare this with Lambeth or Wandsworth CC when it’s possession list day, or Romford when it’s standing room only.


Quo Vadis

Can someone say s.12 Legal Services Act 2007?


Not Amused

I agree with you. But unfortunately the law is effectively useless when the only body with the power to enforce it (the regulators) is inevitably complicit in the whole venture.



“Students charged for valuable training and opportunity for courtroom experience”…

Sorry, what’s the controversy here?



The controversy is that not all students will be able to afford to fork out £400 to pay for the training. Those that can are paying for a set of skills and experience to put on their CV that disadvantaged students will not be able to, thus widening the gap between those sets of applicants. Students rarely do this type of pro bono out of the kindness of their heart, they do it to get ahead.

Of course, this is not the only example of paying for a CV boost. Any student that uses an internship abroad or a gap year teaching English is doing the same thing, this is just hiding behind the pretence of pro bono.



I think the reality is that, whatever way you dress it up, you have to have some independent means to do almost any pro bono (even if that means being on the dole). I have done some cases for FRU, and they all end up taking quite a lot of time – even where the parties decide to settle.

Paying for the training is a minor part of this, consider all the time one spends, and the minor (per incident) cost of travel and printing, which stack up over time.

In this case the students are going to spend up to £600 on training, but they are also going to spend a great deal of time preparing and running cases. That’s time that only relatively wealthy people can afford to donate, because those without money will have to be out trying to earn some, instead of propping-up the government’s ideologically driven policies.



Is that really controversial? There are endless courses/schemes/initiatives/conferences etc. for aspiring candidates in all professions to give them a “taster” or “experience”. Most of them will be a complete waste of time and money. But I trust chambers to see through the spin.

I’ve reviewed hundreds of pupillage applications. It’s usually patently obvious when someone has had the luxury of them and money to spend money to pad CVs. It’s also obvious when people who don’t have that luxury have, commendably, availed themselves of cheaper (time and money) opportunities to show a commitment to the bar and learn skills. There are the poorer applications by those who have done nothing at all save for a gap year in Thailand. Applications aren’t (I hope) read by robots.

In the meantime, this scheme is providing some form of monitored representation to those who might benefit from it. That’s sadly a necessity at the moment – and of assistance, one would hope, to the Courts and the litigants. A candidate might well draw on that experience to good effect in an application. But it doesn’t mean that someone who couldn’t afford that opportunity is going to be at a disadvantage.



The cost is trivial in the scheme of things. Professional training course is around £12,000? Loss of earnings of doing said course – £12,000 again?

This is a pretty cheap add-on, reflecting the cost of providing the training. There is only so much charity to go around. If you want training you have to pay for it.

I was a “disadvantaged” bar student who went to a state school and very limited parental support. I worked hard to save up for law school and came out debt free. I don’t buy this “poor people can’t afford it” crap



Great piece. Any formal requests to the resident judges there as to if they were aware of, and, endorsed the scheme? This is genuinely appalling.



FRU also charge quite a lot for “training” – and in employment there just isn’t enough work for newbies – so FRU are aware that many of those who pay the “training” fee will never actually take on a case because of supply/demand. They are quite open about the fee covering more than just costs of training (the training consists of a pointless day of lectures) – FRU make a nice little earner out of the “training” of volunteers.

Perhaps LC should look into this. Why train hundreds of volunteers when there is only a small amount of working going – thus meaning that most volunteers will have wasted their money.



There are two issues here. The first is how many students take up cases. My experience is that a lot of students undertake the training, but never undertake any cases – even where there are plenty of cases to be run. For example, there are always plenty of social security cases available for entry level volunteers. I just logged-in to check and there are 14 entry level social security cases available.

By comparison there are only four entry level employment law cases available.

The lack of entry level employment cases is due to the changes in fees introduced in 2013. As far as I understand it it now costs a claimant £1,200 to get a case to court (initial claim fee £250 and hearing fee £950). This has led to a drop in cases. Which is the second issue.

But FRU has not stood still on this. Where the employment law training days previously had c250 attendees now they only offer places to 70. Even with the decreased numbers I’m sure there will be many students who take the course and then fail to take up any cases.



I did the employment module on my BVC at City. The module entailed taking an employment FRU case and then putting in a report at the end about what you’d done/learnt. That was it.

It was full-on competition to find a suitable case: literally checking the “new case” pile (in person) a few times a day. I managed to land an interesting one and get a full day hearing out of it.

With hindsight, I’m not sure it was the best idea. Am happy to disclose that I’m not (and have never wanted to be) an employment lawyer. Did the module for some “hands on” experience – and I never took another case. That, I suspect, was the common mentality.

Seems City has form for encouraging it’s BVC/BPTC students to get hands on experience. In my day, they had better results than the other providers in students getting pupillage. That might have been part of the magic.


Lea Christiaanson

The real problem with this blog article, is that Timothy Connelly asked for information, and has then failed to publish that information because it didn’t meet his need to attempt to be ‘scandalous’. I did not decline to give him information, I gave him two very lengthy emails worth of information, none of which supported his stance, so of course, he didn’t publish that. Claiming that I ‘declined’ is disingenuous, when the reality was that I very generously answered all his questions and gave details of how much the Scheme costs to run.

There are two main facts missing (and really all I have time to write about at this moment in time).

1. A tiny little bit of research would have informed Timothy that there is, in fact, still legal aid for possession proceedings, which is what DAS deals with, so no student is propping up the lack of legal aid within DAS. The fact that we are allowed to recruit and train students is a unique opportunity, which is second to none, and done with the permission of the court. s12 LSA2007 does not come in to play (hearings are in chambers, and all that is required is the permission of the judges – which we have and for good reason, we turn out excellent advisers). For the record firms like LPC and Kearns have been sending people out to do the claimant side of possession proceedings for over 20+ years, if it’s against the law, those firms would have collapsed years ago.

2. Anyone with an ounce of common sense would go onto our website, count the number of advisers over the four years we have been running, and would be able to calculate that even with the best will in the world, there was not enough money coming in from the training to pay for DAS for one year, let alone four. I worked that out for Timothy since he couldn’t do it for himself and emailed him the facts, but as it didn’t fit his criteria, he chose to ignore it.

Shame on you Timothy.


Not Amused

1) I am genuinely surprised if advocacy before a judge in chambers is not considered to be a right of audience or legal activity under the Act – but I am no expert.
2) Breaches of regulation frequently go unnoticed until the media point them out.
3) No judge has power to waive the regulatory requirements. Which judge do you believe has authorised you?
4) LPC is regulated by the SRA – are you?
5) LPC is insured – are you?
6) You say, or you imply (rudely) that it is clear, that you do not make profit – are you suggesting you are a charity?
7) Do you know of any charities who charge kids £400 for training? If you do, can you understand why others might question that practice?
8) Why is your training ten times the cost of FRU?
9) If you are not a charity then why do you think it is appropriate for a profit seeking (if you do or don’t make one isn’t really relevant) business to operate in this manner?
10) If legal aid is available in possession claims then why are your organisations’ services required at all?

Personally I see a lot of questions and I am glad the press are investigating. You clearly think that is unfair and that is your right, but I fail to see how anything is helped by your seeking to stifle debate – at the very least you have had lots of free publicity.



Those wishing to do this scheme need to be aware that Lea is not even a lawyer. She has not completed the BPTC or the LPC.



Oh and there’s talks to charge the client. Free advice? My arse.


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