We are now a quarter of the way into 2016, the Bar Pro Bono Unit’s 20th year, and readers will just have finished renewing their practising certificates. Thank you to those who remembered the Unit during the process and donated £30. At the time of writing, it appears that just over half of the Bar has done so. Your donations are vital in enabling us to facilitate access to barristers’ services for those most in need.

During the last 20 years, processes have changed and talented staff have developed within the profession or pursued other valuable careers. The focus has remained the same, however. The Unit exists for the benefit of the applicant: with our help the Bar does its utmost to provide barrister assistance to as many people who cannot afford legal help as possible.

Case in point

I recently spoke with an applicant who received assistance from the Unit, and her volunteer barrister and caseworker, just a week before writing this column. Her story is not unfamiliar, but sheds light on the difficulties faced by litigants in person (LiPs) throughout the court system.

Awarded matrimonial maintenance in 2007 in a family financial dispute, the applicant was in receipt of legal aid and had the assistance of a solicitor until 2010. In trying to enforce the judgment, however, she became caught in an all-too-familiar bind. She was no longer eligible for legal aid because she was earning more than the criteria permitted, yet could not afford to retain her solicitor privately. The applicant did the best she could on her own, using knowledge gained from a law degree obtained many years ago. Without full legal training, she would often ‘clam up, freeze and ultimately irritate the judge’ when appearing in person. She left court ‘thinking of things I could have asked for’, and not knowing how to get them.

The applicant had heard about the Unit from friends, but did not hold out much hope of getting assistance. She understood that barristers might have to ‘turn down paying work to take on her case for free’, and had a sense that she needed to be in the ‘right place, at the right time’. Indeed, it took several attempts for this applicant to be in that right place. The senior barrister reviewing the case’s suitability for pro bono assistance noted: ‘This case comes round with depressing frequency, owing to the apparently endless cycle of adjournment/hearing/dismissal for lack of information/fresh application etc. I have reviewed her application myself on two earlier occasions. I remain of the view that the case is proper for representation. I fear the cycle will continue endlessly.’

Right place at the right time

The right place and the right time came when a junior barrister from Coram Chambers, specialising in family law, had a free diary the next day. This barrister had noted that volunteers were welcome to come into the National Pro Bono Centre on Chancery Lane to find a case to assist that suits their diary. As a junior with ‘a busy diary, popping into the office is a great way for local barristers to give back and gain experience on the rare free day coming up’. Initially, the barrister offered to assist with a contested adoption case but took the difficult decision to take this case because the applicant needed ‘serious input and had a better chance of success’. These are the unfortunate choices that are being made in the current climate, she noted: ‘We cannot help everyone.’ The barrister spent the rest of the day preparing the case, met the client at 9am the next day for conference, and was due to go into court at 10am for a 30-minute hearing.

At 4.15pm counsel and the applicant were finally heard. The applicant was surprised at how long this took, and was concerned that her volunteer barrister had spent the day waiting with her, instead of at her chambers just down the road. When in court, the applicant – who usually felt quite nervous – was impressed with how quickly her barrister had grasped the issues and discussed what options were available. As the respondent did not turn up to the hearing, the barrister was able to challenge where the applicant would not have known how to, or when, by herself. Counsel also asked if the court could ensure that the day set for the next hearing was one when she was available.

The barrister said of the case: ‘I have never seen a case handled so badly by the court system. The applicant has been left adrift. But the nature of the pro bono work is par for the course and often the first hearing where you appear on a pro bono basis is not effective because the case papers are in such a mess.’

Dhriti Suresh Eapen, the caseworker for the Unit on this case, acknowledged that this is a recurring problem: ‘The [LiP] does not always have the skills to prepare the case in a way which counsel requires and the Unit is unfortunately not in a position to do so either. This is where we rely heavily on referral agencies, but many cannot give the ongoing support necessary due to the limitations they have experienced due to funding cuts.’

The applicant was deeply grateful for the support and help the barrister gave her: ‘I do not know what would have happened without her. As my barrister could use legal language and knew the procedures, the court will now service the order with a penal notice attached.’

Counsel concedes that whilst this case may have been successful, this is not a long-term way to contribute to access to justice: ‘It is a drop in the ocean and even though there will be cases I am willing to take, clients need proper input and solicitors. It is difficult dealing with clients who have limited literacy, English and knowledge of court processes, and there is a need for someone to help them navigate their case. Personal Support Units and Citizens Advice are overflowing. The Unit and volunteer barristers are firefighting. It is not even a patch.’

If ‘not even a patch’, why would other barristers get involved in pro bono work? ‘You have to do something,’ she said. ‘The reality is that at the moment there is not the funding in place to ensure people do get access to justice, but if you believe in the concept of justice we have a duty to do what we can to help as many people as possible. It is still not enough and does not ensure universal access to justice. I do what I can to ensure some are still able to access justice.’

Barristers’ vital support

From the Unit’s point of view, our caseworker Dhriti knows that ‘this case demonstrates the importance of support from volunteer barristers. Without it the legal system and court system can be incredibly daunting and challenging for LiPs and can hinder their case substantially’.

Process improvements

It is not just the court system, however, and it can also be difficult for applicants to navigate the Unit’s processes. ‘In an ideal world I would like to be able to communicate more with applicants,’ Dhriti said. ‘I understand that it must be difficult not to hear from the Unit as quickly as would be ideal, especially considering how long it takes sometimes to find a barrister to assist. However, this is very difficult when we are trying to find a barrister for around 150 applicants right now, with hundreds more at other stages of the Unit’s process. It is not feasible to communicate as frequently as I would like, to provide reassurance or just an update.’

The Unit is now developing an electronic system that should provide more opportunity for regular updates and greater clarity for applicants. It will also make reviewing and undertaking a pro bono case with the Unit more accessible, cutting down on time and allowing counsel to engage with the Unit more easily. This is something we have carefully planned and saved your donations for.

This is only a short insight into the journey of an applicant and why a barrister might choose to give their time pro bono. The Unit can only facilitate these matches due to your commitment to pro bono work and sometimes just a conference, written advice or a 45-minute appearance at a hearing can make the world of difference to someone who is out of options.

As our applicant puts it: ‘I couldn’t do it on my own anymore. I had run out of energy. I was elated and relieved when my barrister volunteered. I had given up and now I felt someone would fight in my corner.’

If you missed the opportunity to donate during the authorisation to practice process and would like to do so, visit: www.barprobono.org.uk/donations.

Jess Campbell, Chief Executive, Bar Pro Bono Unit

Take on our anniversary challenge

As part of our 20th year we are encouraging as many barristers on our panel as possible to take on a piece of work pro bono. If you are not on the panel, please join and get involved.

Not everyone is able to call into the Unit offices if they have a free day in the coming weeks, but we send out emails specifying case types, regions and year of call required on a regular basis.

At any point you can proactively log into our secure online system which lists all the cases. If you do not have a log-in for this and would like to request it, please contact Enquiries@BarProBono.org.uk.

Each of our caseworkers manages a Circuit, so if you would like to meet our caseworkers or discuss cases available on your Circuit, please telephone 020 7092 3960 and ask for:

London: Dhriti or Emily  

North East: Saj

Midland: Andrew

South West: Lauren

South East: Amy or Katharine

Wales and Chester: Rebecca

North West: Measha