Pro Bono Week is an annual opportunity to celebrate the amazing contribution made by volunteer lawyers in enabling people to access justice.
We run one of the largest pro bono advice clinic services in the UK, with around 400 volunteer lawyers giving approximately £1.5m of free legal advice and assisting over 3,000 people each year. The clinics were originally set up in 1977 when it became clear that the need for good quality legal advice for people on low incomes exceeded the capacity of what the funded services could deliver.
Since then tens of thousands of local people have been empowered with the skills and knowledge to unlock their legal problem. Mainly this is through one-off advice and direction to help people identify a legal problem and what to do next. The commitment and dedication of the lawyers involved has been extraordinary, and pro bono clinics are rightly to be celebrated. Speaking at the 25th Anniversary of the clinics in 2002, Andrea Dawkins, then chair of SWLLC and pro bono volunteer, commented:
“It is a simple fact that many of the people helped would have been denied their rights and had no access to justice had it not been for this voluntary effort.”
This was echoed by pro bono lawyer Chike Ezike in January 2020 when the clinics were featured in the BBC’s The One Show:
“When we volunteer our gifts and legal skills to help the community, it means everyone has access to good legal representation and it starts to even out the huge power imbalance out there. If there was fairness across board, there would be justice for the downtrodden. We can’t solve everything, but it means one less problem someone else has to face in the world.”
We are working with a number of partners to try to expand the scope of pro bono work, such as working with Simmons & Simmons LLP and Eversheds Sutherland LLP to undertake first tier welfare benefit appeals that are not covered by legal aid or grants.
Despite these efforts and the amazing role that pro bono advice plays in general, it remains wholly unrealistic – and inappropriate – to expect them to fill the gap left by the hugely limited provision of legal aid. Grant funding has not been able to plug this gap either. More than ever there is shocking unmet need.
If – as is often the case – someone’s income is just a few pounds above the threshold for legal aid, our legal aid teams are unable to take them on, but pro bono advice is not necessarily the answer. Sometimes cases (such as neighbourhood disputes) are too complex for one-off advice, there might be a conflict of interest (our pro bono lawyers do not advise landlords or employers for example as our internal teams represent tenants and employees) or there may not be a regular pro bono lawyer able to advise in that area of law.
We have a legal aid contract to provide casework and representation in housing, immigration and discrimination, and in a limited way with community care, public law and welfare rights, as well as an externally funded money advice service. These, together with the pro bono advice clinics, enable us to help around 7,500 local people each year who otherwise would not have access to justice.
However, it is undeniable that there are many who fall through the gaps. The legal landscape has changed immeasurably since the clinics were first established. Government restrictions of LASPO mean that there is now an enormous middle ground of people who do not meet the criteria for legal aid in either scope or means, but who cannot afford their own solicitor.
Pro bono advice is unquestionably a wonderful resource, but it does not provide the end-to-end casework that is needed in the broad spectrum of social welfare law. If the government is serious about access to justice, it needs to properly fund the legal advice sector so that legal aid providers can work in unison with the goodwill of solicitors’ pro bono initiatives to improve access to justice.
Find out more about our legal advice clinics here.