Justice in the UK needs pro bono work

Law_Centres_NetworkNational Pro Bono Week is a good time to acknowledge the partnership between the pro bono community and Law Centres and to consider how it could be developed given the changing landscape of provision after LASPO.

The current climate is an extremely difficult one for Law Centres and the next six months will be crucial. Many are still handling cases funded from before the LASPO cuts. Once these cases close and the case mix changes, the real effects of LASPO will be felt – in particular the 40% average drop in case volumes sustained by Law Centres. Most Law Centres have restructured and downsized and central support functions have had to be cut to the bone yet all but two Law Centres continue to provide services to their communities.

Even so, the need among Law Centre clients continues to grow. Welfare reform, lack of social housing, employment rights being curtailed and of course the restrictions in legal aid have created more and more people desperate to access justice to feed their families, keep their homes or avoid deportation.

Most Law Centres enjoy pro bono help from local or City firms, which is particularly appreciated in these tough times. This usually takes the form of lawyers from private practice providing advice through special clinics at the Law Centre. This does, however, come at a cost to the Law Centre: volunteer lawyers need to be inducted into social welfare law and a different kind of client, be supervised by a Law Centre lawyer during clinic times, and supported by a Law Centre administrator. Each such clinic can cost a Law Centre about £10,000 a year.

The Law Centres Network as a membership organisation also benefits from pro bono and in-kind help from the large firms. Especially at times of fiscal consolidation, this help goes a long way: in the last financial year alone 15% of LCN’s turnover was in pro bono and in-kind support – enabling us to make more effective use of our grant income for the benefit of Law Centres.

The Law Centres movement is also developing our interaction with the national pro bono organisations. The number of people referred by Law Centres to the Bar Pro Bono Unit has increased by 16% in the last twelve months. A number of Law Centres are also engaged with local pro bono projects through LawWorks, enabling more of our clients now excluded from legal aid to get the help they need.

Last year’s Pro Bono Survey, carried out by LawWorks and supported by the Law Society and DLA Piper, highlighted the challenges of planning pro bono that would be fit for purpose in the post-LASPO world. It found that the majority of firms had not then decided how they would respond to the changes. Of the respondents who had given it some thought, suggestions were made that delivery should become more nuanced, with organisations perhaps being more selective about what pro bono work to do, or providing support in other ways. 

There was quite rightly clear concern that pro bono cannot and should not be seen as a substitute for legal aid. However, with legal aid shrinking as it has – through cuts and through the lack of awareness of what remains – surely there is now more room for pro bono activity.

Overall Law Centres have enjoyed steady levels of support from their pro bono and in-kind benefactors, for which they are deeply grateful. But the kind and level of help has hardly changed since LASPO while Law Centres’ needs have changed dramatically. The old model of pro bono involvement may not now be the best one for today’s smaller, leaner Law Centres.

Pro bono work is a positive and powerful force for good that brings benefits to many people in various ways. Clients who would otherwise be turned away get the help they need. Pro bono lawyers get the satisfaction of helping client groups they would not encounter in their day jobs and to learn about other areas of law. Law Centre lawyers rub shoulders with colleagues in the private sector they would not otherwise meet. This engagement across the sector can enhance performance all round as advisers share their experiences and expertise for the benefit of their clients.

Law Centres are powerful conduits of pro bono support into their communities, but their core capacity has taken a hit. We need to think together with our pro bono helpers and design services that are suited to the multiple and changing needs of today’s clients – and ones that Law Centres can manage sustainably. The Law Centres Network is actively engaged in this dialogue and invites more partners to join in. Just last week we held a day-long discussion of this with City firms, and we hope to see its fruits over the coming months.

The continuing pressure on our communities means that perhaps we do not have the luxury of waiting to work out a new overarching blueprint of legal pro bono work. But we must not shy away from repeatedly asking ourselves what more we can do, how we can do it more efficiently and effectively, and get stuck in with new services to help people. Justice in the UK urgently needs it.

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