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Filling the Legal Aid Gap: Following in New York’s Footsteps

Filling the Legal Aid Gap: Following in New York’s Footsteps

From January 2015 it will be a requirement that applicants to the New York bar must have completed at least 50 hours of legal pro bono work. According to chief judge Jonathan Lippman, who implemented the scheme, this will introduce 500,000 hours worth of desperately needed voluntary legal services following the economic downturn in the US.

From January 2015 it will be a requirement that applicants to the New York bar must have completed at least 50 hours of legal pro bono work.

There is quite an urgent need to address the alarming situation in New York and the US in general; citizens with decreasing budgets are now much more likely to go to court and will do so without a lawyer. So what is pro bono and why should the UK take New York’s lead?

What is ‘pro bono’ work?

Pro bono is defined in the New York bar requirement (Section 520.16 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law). It is stated to be ‘supervised pre-admission law-related work that assists in the provision of legal services without charge for (i) persons of limited means; (ii) not-for-profit organizations; or (iii) individuals, groups or organizations seeking to secure or promote access to justice, including, but not limited to, the protection of civil rights, civil liberties or public rights’.

In simple terms legal pro bono means ‘for the good of the people’. It is a wide term for voluntary schemes, facilitated by such charities in England and Wales as the Free Representational Unit (FRU) and the Bar Pro Bono Unit. These voluntary schemes aim to provide free legal services to communities who are otherwise unable to access any and are therefore in great need of such services. The Bar Pro Bono Unit in particular assists with many cases and stages of a case, including advice, representation and help at mediation, and cases in all tribunals and courts in England and Wales. The facilitating organisations are supported by some professional practitioners, such as Blackstone Chambers, and are staffed by volunteers, including law students.

LawWorks is the UK’s leading legal pro bono charity and it lists a national network of free legal advice clinics for people to seek help.

There is currently no centralised system for pro bono work and facilities vary greatly across the UK. LawWorks is the UK’s leading legal pro bono charity and it lists a national network of free legal advice clinics for people to seek help. The clinics are currently most greatly accessible in London with a total of 59, 29 are available in North England, Yorkshire and the Humber, 12 in the Midlands and just three in Wales.

The overall feeling among legal professionals in the UK is that pro bono units have been busier than ever since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into force in April this year. Part one of the Act proposes dramatic cuts to the scope and eligibility for legal aid. This will inevitably increase the number of individuals seeking help and advice from pro bono facilities in the UK.

Should the UK introduce a pro bono requirement?

Social policy advisors at the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) believe that pro bono should potentially be used to assist with the escalating 650,000 non-supportable issues recorded by CAB earlier this year. However, the nature of pro bono being a voluntary scheme, could not currently offer the same kind of practical support to less wealthy people that legal aid does. Therefore, pro bono requires rapid expansion and reassessment if it is to become on par with the legal aid system and hope to help those people in great need of legal services.

Pro bono requires rapid expansion and reassessment if it is to become on par with the legal aid system…

In light of this, a scheme to introduce a compulsory pro bono requirement for UK law students would be unsupportable in the current state of the legal industry. A service using pro bono to take on cases that legal aid can no longer assist with would need complete restructuring and better coordination throughout the UK. There are many ways that the system simply would not work and it would require criticism by professionals before it could take on such a demanding and significant role in the country.

It has been confirmed that there is no indication to suggest that pro bono work would become a compulsory requirement for law students within professional training structures in the UK. If a regulator attempted to make such a change, it would need to gain approval from the Legal Services Board (LSB), an independent body overseeing legal regulators in England and Wales.

What’s next for pro bono?

So, despite no mandatory requirement for pro bono work in the country at the moment, there is increasing encouragement for students in the UK to attend pro bono clinics. There is also an increase in partnerships between pro bono organisations and law schools in the country. The CAB has been in talks with pro bono organisations in the UK, delving into what is good practice. This could reflect a new increasing trend towards students being selected to work in pro bono.

With the prospect of a widening gap for the less wealthy in being able to access justice, what does the future hold? It is quite clear that in the near future, a rapid expansion and assessment of pro bono would only be possible if the UK follows in the New York bar’s footsteps and makes pro bono work a compulsory requirement for aspiring barristers. The reality is that the individuals that have the money to pay for top quality legal advice are much more likely to win their case. The divide between the rich and the poor in the UK where legal services are concerned is a worryingly real one and one that could be addressed with the help of pro bono.

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