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

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By Michael Walker on

Take on the fight


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.

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