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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.

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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.