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The importance of pro bono lawyering

Date:6 NOV 2014
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Family Law

Maeve O’Rourke, Barrister, Thomas Bingham Chambers

The below article was originally published in August Family Law and has been made available free of charge for National Pro Bono Week.

Family law is the area in which the Bar Pro Bono Unit is seeing the greatest number of applications for assistance. Demand is growing steadily, with the Unit finding it increasingly difficult to place all of its accepted cases in London, the South East and the Midlands. By July of this year, the Unit’s five caseworkers had received almost the same number of family law requests as they had in total last year.

Up and down the country, family lawyers are giving generously of their time and expertise on a personal basis and through LawWorks, the Bar Pro Bono Unit, Citizens’ Advice Bureaux and Law Centres. Law students are joining in too, offering advice through a number of supervised law school clinics. Four months ago, a pro bono solicitor and barrister rota scheme was established at the (then called) Principal Registry of the Family Division in an additional effort to ensure effective access to justice for litigants in person. All of this is happening even as LASPO has made it more difficult for legal aid family lawyers to make a living. Unfortunately, however, it is not filling the gap.

In July’s issue, Susan Jacklin QC highlighted some of the damage being done to families where pro bono legal assistance is not available to meet the need created by LASPO. Rights of Women is amongst others tracking the effects: its March 2014 study found that only 25% of women affected by domestic violence but ineligible for legal aid (most because of lack of prescribed evidence) chose to represent themselves in court. Others stayed in violent relationships or ended up in debt due to legal bills (see: http://www.rightsofwomen.org.uk/pdfs/Policy/Evidencing_domestic_violence_III.pdf).

The demand for pro bono family lawyers is here to stay for the short term at least and, in the longer term, there will always be a need, even if (hopefully) not in the overwhelming sense that we see today. Encouraging pro bono lawyering from the early stages of legal education is one important way of fostering the ethic and commitment required to meet that demand into the future and to assist civil society in achieving systemic change. As a law student, I was fortunate enough to have teachers who expected a lot of me. They encouraged me to see my legal research, writing and advocacy skills as useful even before qualifying fully as a lawyer. With this confidence, I represented a survivor advocacy group ‘Justice for Magdalenes’ before the Irish Human Rights Commission, UN Committee against Torture, UN Human Rights Council, parliamentarians and in the media. I gained invaluable expertise and our work, along with that of others, led to a State apology and restorative justice scheme for survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries in 2013.

Neither the LPC nor BPTC has a pro bono requirement, although some providers mandate a small number of hours. By contrast, applicants to the New York State Bar now have to complete 50 hours of pro bono work before qualifying. Whether it would be fair to family law clients or students to impose upon those still in training the burden of providing free legal assistance where legal aid is no longer available is highly questionable.

Students aside, relying on pro bono lawyering is not the solution to many of the legal aid gaps created by LASPO in family law because cases can be complex, lengthy and stressful for clients. However, there are many kinds of legal contributions students can make while still in training which hopefully embed a commitment to further pro bono work throughout their legal careers. For the benefits it brings to the public and to lawyers from the most junior ranks to the senior, I believe that encouraging a pro bono ethic is one of the most important jobs of any law school.

Maeve O'Rourke is the winner of the Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year Award, Family Law Awards 2013.
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