The below article was originally published in January 2016 Family Law and has been revised and made available free of charge for National Pro Bono Week which runs 7-11 November.
The aim of the week is to celebrate the breadth and impact of pro bono work undertaken by the legal profession across the year. When legal aid was first enshrined in British law, in the form of the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, it was intended to be an essential component of the welfare state, a service as integral to its citizens as health care and social insurance. In accordance with the rule of law, its purpose was to ensure that anyone who needed legal advice would be able to access it, regardless of economic or social status. Indeed, when it came into effect in 1950, legal aid provided 80% of the population with a means-tested entitlement to funding for civil cases.1 Pro bono legal charities, which had been the sole point of access to justice for the economically downtrodden before the advent of legal aid, instead filled in the gaps, providing legal advice and representation to those who did not qualify for public funding.
However, those gaps have widened considerably. By 1973, the percentage of the population with a means-tested entitlement to legal aid dropped to 40%, and by 2008, it covered only 29% of the population.2 More recently, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 ('LASPO') has effected what is arguably the greatest assault on legal aid since its inception. Legal aid is no longer available for advice or representation for most cases concerning family breakdown, welfare benefit issues, clinical negligence, unfair dismissal, immigration, and housing. According to the Law Society’s Access to Justice campaign, this has resulted in over 600,000 people losing access to legal aid.3
The cuts to legal aid generated by LASPO have placed an enormous amount of pressure on pro bono legal services. The Bar Pro Bono Unit, which provides free legal advice and representation from over 3,600 volunteer barristers, reports that it has seen a 30% increase in applications each year since LASPO was enacted.4 Likewise, on 8 October 2015, the Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre in London had to close its enquiry system for the first time since its creation due to an over 100% increase in demand.5 Access to justice is now contingent on the commitment of thousands of legal practitioners, who dedicate their limited time to those who can not afford their services. The impact of their work is recognised during National Pro Bono Week, which also provides the opportunity for legal practitioners to collaberate and learn more about pro bono work.
But notwithstanding the thousands of legal practitioners who provide their services gratis each year, pro bono work is unable to compensate for the loss of a comprehensive legal aid system; nor should it have to. Writing in 1926, F.C.G. Gurney-Champion, author of Justice and the Poor in England and a leader of the Poor Man’s lawyer service, argued that: 'The fact that access to justice is available only as a charity, not as of right, has rendered the rule of law an anaemic, attenuated make-believe which we flourish in the eyes of the poor as "justice."’6 Almost ninety years later, the burden of ensuring that the vulnerable and marginalised have access to justice has shifted back to pro bono services, fixing bullet holes with Band-Aids.
Bianca is shortlisted for Young Barrister of the Year at the 2016 Family Law Awards. To find out more and place your vote, please visit theFamily Law Awards homepage.
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If you are interested in sponsoring an award please contactBecky Wall1Hynes, Steve. 'From CLSPs to CLACs- Local Government and Legal Aid. Speech to the National', Association of Welfare Rights Advisors (5th March 2010) (www.nawra.org.uk). 2Ibid. 3Access to Justice Campaign: http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/policy-campaigns/campaigns/access-to-justice. 4Campbell, Jess. 'Pro Bono Watch'. Counsel Magazine (October 2015) (http://www.counselmagazine.co.uk/articles/probono-watch). 5Fouzder, Monidipa. 'Advice Centre Struggles with Demand Surge', Law Society Gazette (http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/law/advice-centre-struggles-with-demand-surge/5051482.fullarticle). 6Hynes, Steve. 'From CLSPs to CLACs- Local Government and Legal Aid. Speech to the National', Association of Welfare Rights Advisors (5th March 2010) (www.nawra.org.uk).