This marked decrease in spending has come at a cost, to the advice sector, to the legal profession, to the court system and above all to those seeking access to justice.

Absent legal aid funding, individuals are turning in increasing numbers towards Citizens Advice Bureaux and local Law Centres to obtain legal assistance. These organisations are in turn struggling to keep their doors open as they suffer from cash flow problems due to reduced income from legal aid alongside cuts to central and local government funding. At a time when the free advice sector has never been more important, many vital centres are closing their doors. Shelter, the housing charity, closed nine advice offices nationwide whilst Law for All entered administration. Others are forced to adapt to a changing legal market, for example by introducing fees.

The impact on the publicly funded legal profession is clear, but what should not be ignored is the wider impact on the profession’s continuation of its tradition of assisting those members of the public most in need. The closure of essential advice centres leaves lawyers who wish to offer pro bono help with fewer opportunities to do so. Whilst the desire to help remains strong, the opportunities are reducing. Pro bono organisations are doing all they can to remain open by implementing strategic change alongside support from funders. The Access to Justice Foundation (the “Foundation”) is helping the advice sector survive through its strategic funding decisions, funding umbrella organisations like Citizens Advice, Law Centres Network and AdviceUK, whose member organisations provide free legal advice and representation nationwide. Alongside this and in conjunction with the Legal Support Trusts across the country, the Foundation distributes funds to front line charities and organisations to enable them to keep their doors open. In this way, the Foundation hopes to minimise ‘advice deserts’, areas of the country where there is simply no free legal advice.

Relieving the burden on the court system

Whilst the legal profession’s commitment to undertaking pro bono work is applauded, it simply cannot meet the demand for its services. As such, a significant number of individuals have no option but to represent themselves in court proceedings. The Judicial Executive Board concludes that the rise in the number of cases in which one or both parties do not have legal representation has had an adverse impact upon courts’ administration and efficiency. In particular, their perception has been that in the absence of advice pre-proceedings, unmeritorious cases which ought to have been settled proceed to litigation and that such cases stretch court resources by demanding greater support from staff and judges to compensate for a lack of familiarity with law and procedure. The work of organisations such as the RCJ Advice Bureau and the Personal Support Unit, both of which provide support to those facing legal proceedings, are vital in helping to alleviate the sorts of difficulties that the judiciary has already experienced since LASPO; but these organisations need funding.

Making pro bono pay

Lord Goldsmith QC, chairman of the Foundation, warned as far back as 1995 that pro bono work should not be seen as a substitute for a properly funded system of legal aid. Now in 2014 it appears that we may be forced into the unenviable position of having pro bono work pick up the slack left by a drastically reduced legal aid budget. We should do all we can to make that pro bono work pay. A vital source of income for the pro bono sector is from pro bono costs. The Foundation is the charity designated by the Lord Chancellor to receive funds from pro bono costs orders made by the civil courts in cases where the successful party benefited from free legal help. Pro bono costs are based on the amount that a fee paying client would have been charged for the work and are claimed in the usual way ( ). By distributing the income generated from pro bono costs orders, the Foundation plays a pivotal role in countering, at least partially, the adverse effects of the legal aid cuts. There is no doubt that the pro bono work necessary to generate these costs orders is already being done; what is needed is for members of the Bar to capitalise on their hard work and apply for pro bono costs orders wherever possible. I urge you to do so.