Why pro bono matters
My first introduction to pro bono work was while I was an undergraduate. I was fortunate to secure a summer placement with the Solicitors Pro Bono Group, where I worked in legal advice clinics in London, including Lambeth, Toynbee Hall and the advice clinic at the Royal Courts of Justice. What impressed me most was the passion and enthusiasm the volunteers had about doing pro bono work. It was really satisfying and rewarding to be able to give something back to the community by helping those in need.
Now I am a solicitor at Shoosmiths LLP and still have the same passion and enthusiasm for pro bono work that I had as an undergraduate. I joined Shoosmiths just over two years ago and, shortly after joining, volunteered at the Central and East Northamptonshire Citizens Advice Pro Bono Clinic. This is a joint initiative pro bono legal advice project in conjunction with Central and East Northamptonshire Citizens Advice, University of Northampton Law School and Shoosmiths. The clinic aims to provide a quality assured advice service at no cost to the client. It is hosted and administered by Central and East Northamptonshire Citizens Advice with all advice being delivered by Shoosmiths staff, with support from law students from the University of Northampton Law School. It is primarily aimed at people who live or work in Northampton and the surrounding area who cannot otherwise access or afford legal advice.
I currently co-ordinate the clinic and am responsible for receiving and considering appointment enquiries, carrying out conflict checks, preliminary assessment of cases and identifying what further documents/information is required. I'm also in charge of arranging the volunteer rota, recruiting volunteers and arranging regular updates and meeting with Central and East Northamptonshire Citizens Advice, University of Northampton Law School and LawWorks to discuss making the clinic most effective for its clients.
In November last year and during National Pro Bono Week, I was a panellist at a symposium hosted by the University of Northampton to raise awareness of the remarkable work undertaken not only by lawyers and law students, but also in the wider community to help people in acute need who would otherwise be unable to access legal advice. Fellow panel members included the chief executive of the Northamptonshire Citizens Advice, the chief executive of Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council and past president of the Law Society of England and Wales, and past president of and Northamptonshire Law Society, Linda Lee. The symposium generated lots of enthusiasm from the community and interesting but important discussion about why pro bono mattered and whether an increase in volunteering work gave licence for the government to make legal aid spending cuts.
The legal aid landscape has changed significantly over the last few years. On 1 April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into effect. As a result of this, an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice was created to administer legal aid called the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). Also, LASPO made changes to the scope and eligibility of legal aid and to exceptional case funding.
Based on data from the Ministry of Justice, the LAA spent just over £1.7 billion in 2013-14 on funding advice for criminal and civil legal matters. This may seem high, but it has reduced sharply since LASPO and is likely to reduce further. There are now limitations in respect of receiving legal aid for family cases and legal aid has been removed with some exceptions or reduced for civil matters. In the last few months, I have noticed an increase in the number of family-related enquires at the pro bono clinic. These enquiries are from people who are in desperate need of legal assistance and unable to afford it due to government spending cuts, which were inevitable in any event. Assisting such people is why pro bono matters, perhaps more than ever before.
The clinic I coordinate operates once every month. I manage a rota of volunteers and each volunteer would typically attend two or three clinic sessions a year. The advice could be as straight-forward as helping someone complete a form or simply giving practical advice. Something as simple as this makes a huge difference.
Volunteering also gives you skills and contacts that can help with career progression. It gives volunteers the opportunity to experience different areas of law and acquire transferrable skills, including delegation, supervision of students and management. It is also a good opportunity to network with other professionals and within the wider community. For example, firms can get involved with a local law school on a Street Law project. There are also advantages for the law firms too. It can help build teamwork and morale and be part of the firm's social responsibility strategy.
Pro bono is part of a lawyer's DNA and has always mattered. With the legal aid spending cuts, it matters more now than ever before and, in the process, creates opportunities for lawyers to volunteer in exciting and innovative ways which benefit all that are involved.