Legal aid – but not as we know it

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Last week was the Oscars ceremony, which reminded me that there have been a lot of good films released recently, of which I have seen hardly any. When films come out, we regularly comment on how much we’d like to see them, even make plans to do so but in fact rarely manage to get to the cinema more than once a year.

Actually, in 2013 I went twice and saw Star Trek: Into Darkness and Gravity. Writing that made me wonder if I could work out any sort of connection between the two, other than the fact that they are both set in space – I think I have one, and I will come to it later.

The opening paragraph is something of a metaphor for the fact that I am about to start my last week at LawWorks, and looking at the contents of my desk makes me realise how little I have got done since I started.

For all my good intentions, the hopes I started out with five years ago and those I amassed along the way dwarf what I have actually done. I’m immensely proud, however, of what the LawWorks team has achieved during this period and also the strides made by the pro bono sector in general, of which I’ve been delighted to have been a small part.

Highlights include the establishment in 2013 of LawWorks Cymru, a bespoke project to improve access to justice in Wales and of course the establishment in 2010 of the National Pro Bono Centre in Chancery Lane. Both these initiatives are still on the journey towards their full potential.

I’ve seen pro bono move towards the mainstream, play an important part in policy development by the Civil Justice Council and in the Low Commission report and become more professional and strategic with growing attention focused on monitoring and evaluating impact and on focusing delivery where need demands. An example of this has been the development of the LawWorks clinics strategy, which is working to identify and respond to advice deserts all over the country, harnessing technology like Skype to provide remote resource where necessary.

Pro bono is increasingly recognised, also, by the professional bodies and by the regulators and in the international arena, where it has come of age, finding a platform at the Quatar Rule of Law Forum and, of course, in the PILnet Forum, which will come to London later this year.

And with all this, new energy brings new pro bono effort all the time, most recently in the form of Pro Bono Community, working (in the National Pro Bono Centre) to train law students to volunteer at law centres.

All this is made possible by the amazing individuals who staff LawWorks and other pro bono charities, sit on their boards and, most importantly, who volunteer their time to make a difference to those in need. The highlight of the past five years for me has been the LawWorks annual awards ceremony, where the most extraordinary contributions are rightly recognised.

At the other end of the spectrum, my five years at LawWorks, which started off with the loss of a LawWorks member (the in-house legal team at Lehman Brothers), included the enactment of LASPO, which cast a long shadow over everyone’s agenda and has changed the goal posts in terms of any possible measure of success.

There will always be a need to do more. Going forward, I hope that my successor is able to support LawWorks and work with other charities to have more impact in the regions – a long-held priority for all of us and one where I think we do now have the foundations to move forward.

We also need to ensure that whatever we do, we talk less and listen more. That is the only way we can ensure that we work in partnership and so ensure that service delivery is as effective as possible and meets the needs of those most vulnerable.

From next week, I will be taking up the role of chief legal office at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, where I am planning on keeping up my connection with the pro bono world, not only because I’ll be staying on the board of the National Pro Bono Centre, but also because of a number of synergies, overlaps and common goals in terms of the operation of the two sectors.

I take with me, with gratitude, the results of many lessons learned.

So, what does this all have to do with Star Trek and Gravity?

I think it’s possible to see a connection in terms of redemption and second chances. Look away now if you haven’t seen either, but Gravity is about the almost impossible survival of an astronaut when a space shuttle explodes, who finds her way to Earth and safety in the end. Star Trek is an intricate re-working of an old favourite, based on the dramatic device of history being changed, so that the developments in the TV series are all recast with new characters, subtle plot changes and twenty-first century special effects.

You can only enjoy either, really, if you’re prepared to believe either in fairy stories, second chances or both.

For those of us who have been watching the impact of LASPO over the past year, it is hard to believe in happy endings; they are the preserve of Oscar ceremonies. Every time we hear about another law centre closing, it gets harder to believe in the ability to make a difference.

It is also, in my view, hard to think that legal aid for social welfare law, unravelled after half a century supporting the community in need, is heading for a safe landing, can be coming back. I think the way forward has to be to acknowledge that and to work together as a sector and as a profession to produce a credible alternative policy, which will be attractive to the next government, once robust collective mapping has taken place in order to articulate what has transpired.

This will not be legal aid as we knew it, and I suspect it will be about systematic change in the courts and in the way we approach litigants in person, in how we legislate, in capacity building and in technology.

It needs to be thought through in conjunction with the changes sweeping the legal profession, and it needs to be properly resourced, so that we take into account the most innovative and sustainable ways in which law can be brought to the community, and in which pro bono must play its part, recognising that there will always be a need for pro bono in-depth casework in the most vulnerable cases, and this must be acknowledged by both the government and the profession.

Low has laid some important foundations in helping us to think in this way. A part of all this, however, is recognising that it won’t be the same as it was. It will have to be different. We just have to make sure that it works.

Live long and prosper.

About Rebecca Hilsenrath

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