Improving access to justice

This Pro Bono Week, lawyers, charities and other key stakeholders in pro bono services have been gathering to consider what they can do to help their communities

Martin WhitehornI recently sat at a roundtable event to discuss how to deliver access to justice in Surrey, a county recognised by the Law Society as a legal aid desert.

Many excellent ideas were raised, which I will explore shortly, but I was struck by how many of my fellow attendees had been impacted by the closure of the Surrey Law Centre in 2018.

Those at the table reported that the closure had been a “complete disaster”.

People who had previously had access to legal advice were now turning to the private law courts to fix their problems, entering proceedings without legal representation, without any support and with no idea about what to do or even expect.

These litigants in person did not know where to turn for help, often with unrealistic expectations on what they could accomplish alone. Some of those who did obtain legal representation had left it late to instruct a lawyer, leaving little time to adequately prepare.

What was particularly concerning was that people at the table confirmed a lot of these problems could be alleviated with some initial legal advice. For example, many litigants in person did not know about family mediation and assumed they had to go straight to court to resolve matrimonial issues.

Some attendees considered the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) had only exacerbated matters, reducing the availability of legal aid and increasing the burden on public services.

The Law Society has argued that LASPO would have a damaging impact on access to justice, with large numbers of people, including children and those on low incomes being excluded from entire areas of subsidised legal advice, which they could not realistically by expected to afford.

The Law Society’s Legal Aid Deserts parliamentary briefing of 2019 reported that 37% of the population live in local authorities without a single housing legal aid provider to help them.

As former Law Society president Christina Blacklaws commented at the time: “More than 21 million people live in a local authority without a single housing legal aid service, leaving pensioners, families with young children, people with disabilities or on low incomes struggling to access the legal advice they are entitled to when they are at their most vulnerable.”

“Anyone trying to resolve a serious housing problem is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently - if the nearest legal aid solicitor is in the next county they might as well be on Mars.”

What can be done?

Law centres could not exist without volunteers. Getting lawyers experienced with family, employment, immigration, debt and housing to advise in law clinics is particularly important if they are to work at all.

Law and LPC students are also a valuable resource and this in turn can help students gain legally relevant work experience from supporting advisors.

In order to attract legal aid funding, law centres need legal aid lawyers to do casework. Housing lawyers are in particular demand, with more than half of local authorities having no legal aid housing provider for their communities.

People should know where to get the help they need and law centres need permanent staff to provide continuity in running them. Hiring a development manager and an administrator to fulfil these roles is key to an effective free legal service.

Lawtech can enable lawyers to carry out pro bono work without having to travel to a clinic, instead drafting letters and supervising those at the clinic remotely, with Legal Aid Agency approval.

Online clinics are another possibility, removing the need for some vulnerable people to make difficult journeys to receive legal advice.

Working with existing pro bono clinics and law centres to establish new ones makes these tasks more achievable.

All these recommendations and more were shared at the roundtable. With continued engagement, it is hoped these measures will establish widespread legal support.

How can I help?

If you want to help those who need free legal advice, whatever work you may do already, then learn what you can accomplish by getting involved with Young Legal Aid Lawyers .

Many Junior Lawyers Division local group also engage in pro bono efforts.

You should also get in touch with LawWorks , a charity dedicated to connecting volunteer lawyers with people in need of legal advice.

LawWorks are able to support lawyers in developing secondary specialisations, training them in areas of social welfare law to meet the demand for such services.

Another leading charity is the Access to Justice Foundation which specialises in raising funds for free legal services in England and Wales.

The foundation collaborates with a network of legal support trusts to fund local projects.

Martin Whitehorn, trainee solicitor at Julie West Solicitors, is on the Young Surrey Lawyers committee.

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