Thank you for your continued support, particularly with considerable pressures on certain parts of the Bar. It is so encouraging to see you still willingly volunteer and contribute to the Unit’s running costs. As the London Legal Walk in May had its largest number of walkers since it began, it is clear that barristers continue to engage with the pro bono and volunteer sector as much as ever (the delicious halloumi fries were also a good incentive to finish the walk quickly!).
It is the wider pro bono community that I will focus on in this column. The Unit is part of a number of collaborative and coordinating groups that bring together the expertise across all those serving litigants in person (LiPs) in order to share ideas and make the process as smooth as possible for those in need of help.
The LiP Support Strategy
The Litigants in Person Support Strategy (the Strategy) was formed in response to the influx of litigants in person since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) cuts, bringing together the charities who support LiPs at each step of the process. The Law for Life www.Advicenow.org.uk website provides a web-based resource for LiPs. A ‘Going to Court’ section has been added as part of the Strategy, acting as a one-stop-shop for LiPs. This user-friendly, easily understandable website provides accurate information on rights and the law. Once an LiP has identified they have a legal problem, LawWorks clinics and Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) Advice are on hand to give early advice and legal advice with court cases. The Personal Support Unit (PSU) provides the important service of helping people as they prepare to go to court unrepresented and at court itself. These four partners are funded by the Ministry of Justice to deliver joined-up services to LiPs. The Access to Justice Foundation (AtJF) and Bar Pro Bono Unit are also part of the strategy, as non-funded partners. The AtJF receives and distributes the money received. The Unit is, of course, the last stage of an LiP’s journey, utilised if they require representation.
Since LASPO, the PSU has gone from helping LiPs on 13,000 occasions a year to 45,000 a year in 2015/16. For the period March 2014 to April 2015, LawWorks clinics responded to 43,000 enquiries (a 55% increase), with over 28,000 receiving legal advice. RCJ Advice has seen an increase in LiPs given legal advice from 3,016 in 2014/15 to 5,587 in 2015/16. It is clear that the Strategy collaboration is vital at this time.
The first two years of the Strategy has seen a concerted marketing effort to ensure that LiPs know where to begin their search for legal help, namely Advicenow. PSU has expanded its presence in courts and LawWorks has opened more clinics. RCJ Advice and the Unit have also collaborated to create multiple duty schemes (see Pro Bono Watch, Counsel, January 2016). The focus has been on establishing the best ways to ensure the LiP is accessing the right type of service, from the best placed organisation, at the right time in their journey.
The 2015 Civil Justice Council (CJC) Fourth National Forum on Access to Justice for LiPs recognised that although there was increased collaboration and coordination in this sector, there was a need for a more strategic approach. With this in mind, the CJC established three task groups – on public legal education (PLE), early advice and IT database solutions – drawn from experts in each field, including the funded Strategy partners. The CJC also identified three important framework priorities: commencing a ten-year strategic plan; developing the Strategy; and contributing to the HMCTS Reform Programme and Civil Courts Structure Review.
What is a court?
JUSTICE has recently produced a very interesting report entitled What is a Court? which makes suggestions for the best way the court and tribunal estate could reform to suit LiPs. It proposes that simple justice spaces which are less formal and highly flexible, together with more set and formal justice spaces, could provide the freedom to determine the most appropriate justice space based on the characteristics and demands of the particular case to be heard.
Civil court reform update
In late April, representatives from the advice and pro bono sector met to discuss the second stage of Lord Justice Briggs’ Civil Courts Structure Review, following the release of his Interim Report in December 2015. The roundtable discussed the importance of PLE and the role of law in citizens lives prior to any dispute; early initial legal advice; and designing the process for an Online Court, as envisaged by Briggs LJ. Focused on the practicalities, it featured an extensive discussion on the gradients of digital literacy of the sector client base. The Unit is involved in these conversations and it is encouraging to see real synergy between court reform, the CJC and the Strategy.
Bar Council Pro Bono Board
Finally, the Unit is part of the new Bar Council Pro Bono Board, which is developing a number of initiatives. These include the creation of a toolkit supporting barristers who wish to set up pro bono schemes. It is also looking at the ways in which barristers record pro bono time billing so that they can maximise any pro bono costs orders recovered for the benefit of the pro bono sector through the AtJF.
Survey: quantifying output
Conscious of the recent figures from the Law Society indicating that 42% of solicitors had undertaken pro bono work in the preceding 12 months, the Board is looking at ways to quantify the Bar’s pro bono output. Many barristers undertake pro bono work, both through the Unit and more widely, but the Board wants to find out more about the type of work being done. The Bar Council Pro Bono Board is launching a short survey to find out how extensive the Bar’s pro bono activity is, and what sort of activities barristers get involved in: whether legal advice and representation in England and Wales; legal assistance and work to support the rule of law internationally; Bar-related voluntary work; or voluntary work in other areas.
Completing the survey will take just a couple of minutes, and I encourage you to respond.