One of our flagship projects is the Justice First Fellowship (JFF) scheme, which we launched in 2014 and extended to trainee barristers this year for the first time.

It is an ambitious initiative, which takes inspiration from similarly groundbreaking schemes in America. JFF aims to support the next generation of lawyers who are committed to a career in social welfare law. As well as completing their legal qualification (whether at a solicitor-led organisation or via pupillage), our fellows also undertake a personal project, aimed at directly increasing access to justice.

Despite all the well-known problems which have beset the social welfare advice sector in recent years, the calibre of the JFF candidates to date has been remarkable, and this is reflected in the scope and quality of projects that those already in post are undertaking. These range from training volunteers to give legal advice to domestic violence victims, to developing online support for people representing themselves at social security appeals.

Fellows also receive additional training in skills such as public speaking, business planning, fundraising and media relations, recognising other essential skills they will need alongside being expert social welfare lawyers if they are to fulfill their potential as future leaders of the social welfare law profession.

The shape of a movement

Our two most recent recruits, Harriet Dudbridge, who joins St John’s Chambers, and Naima Asif, who joins Pump Court, are proof that the appetite for social welfare law is just as high among trainee barristers as it is on the solicitors’ side of the profession.

Before starting pupillage in 2017, Harriet and Naima will spend a year at the Bar Pro Bono Unit (see below). Once in chambers, their training will focus on publicly funded family work – an area where committed barristers can make a significant impact.

Once the 2016 solicitor intake is appointed in November, we will have over 30 fellows in post; and with the first cohort due to qualify in January 2017, the fellowship scheme is starting to take on the shape of a movement.

We don’t pretend that a scheme on this scale can solve all the problems caused by the funding cuts which have had such a big impact on the availability of social welfare law advice. But this scheme gives important recognition to the vital contribution that all lawyers in this field make to access to justice, and to the way their work transforms the lives of the poor and vulnerable.

Contributor Matthew Smerdon, Chief Executive of The Legal Education Foundation:

Fellows will enter profession with eyes opened and skills sharpened

Our two inaugural barrister Justice First fellows, Harriet and Naima, joined us as caseworkers in September. Their presence increases the capacity of the Bar Pro Bono Unit to serve the growing number of applicants coming to the charity. In the past six months, the unit has received an average of 190 applications a month; that is nearly 30 applications per caseworker, or one each, every day of the month.

Of course, Unit caseworkers manage a wide range of additional tasks, not least communicating with the Bar. Through the JFF programme, the fellows are able to use their time with us to build relationships with their training chambers, as well as many other chambers in the same and other specialisms. Fellows will get a unique insight into the workings of clerks rooms and what motivates the Bar to assist vulnerable people.

It is especially timely that they come on board as the Unit continues to receive the majority of its applications in family disputes. On completion of their time as caseworkers with us, they will join family sets for pupillage. Their experience at the Unit will equip them to work with the variety of challenges, emotions and legal problems, being faced by litigants within the family courts. The aim of the fellowship year is for those going on to join the Bar to enter the profession with their eyes open and skills sharpened. Volunteer organisations such as ourselves are asked to assist a diverse range of litigants-in-person, with a wide array of capabilities, from relatively simple legal issues, to the most complex and emotionally testing cases. We expect this training ground will ensure that the next generation of the Bar and next leaders in the pro bono community have a realistic view of those facing our courts, and how the courts, professions and supporting charities can adapt to help.

The fellows will also help the Unit as it develops in its 20th year. The Unit is changing its processes and systems, with the aim not only of continuing to assist all these applicants, but to better support the volunteers. The fellows will learn how pro bono barristers work and what support they might require. So when they are in practice, they will follow the lead pro bono barristers have set, and continue to work with the Unit as panel members to help those who cannot access justice.

Jess Campbell, Chief Executive of the Bar Pro Bono Unit

Care work demands barristers who are highly qualified, committed and motivated

The changes in the ability to receive advice and representation as a result of LASPO have seen an unprecedented number of self-represented litigants enter the family courts in search of a solution to their often complex problems. Clearly, there are limits to what a single chambers can – and should – do to address this issue, but St John’s continues to be involved in wider community initiatives: this has included assisting in setting up a website containing information for self-represented litigants and helping establish a pro bono advice scheme for those involved in private law disputes. In addition, we have assisted in identifying and coordinating volunteer and parenting support for parents, particularly those in public law proceedings, who often have a need for practical and emotional support in many areas of their complex lives.

The family practice group at St John’s has been chosen by The Legal Education Foundation as one of only two chambers in the country to host a JFF pupil. It is a privilege to play a part in developing the careers of those who have chosen the publicly funded bar as their career path.

A key factor for us in deciding to become a JFF host was the knowledge that the pupil will already have spent a year at the Bar Pro Bono Unit, and will have gained both practical experience and undertaken a research project, allowing them to develop a wider knowledge base and legal/academic research skills. In addition, their commitment to the publicly funded Bar is essential. Given the limitations to public funding post-LASPO, this means a focus on care proceedings. Care proceedings represent the most significant intervention by the state into private and family life, and so it is essential that highly qualified, committed and motivated practitioners are dedicated to undertaking this work.

We were impressed by the calibre of applicants – all were bright, determined and able to demonstrate a strong commitment to helping the disadvantaged or vulnerable – and we look forward to welcoming our JFF pupil Harriet Dudbridge to chambers in due course.

The work undertaken by the JFF is clearly very important, but does raise the wider question (outside the scope of this article) about access to justice in our society. The fact that a scheme like this exists to promote social welfare law training is a reminder of the wider issues around the longer term sustainability of the essential pool of highly skilled practitioners, of which we hope youngsters like Harriet will become a part, and the consequent ramifications for access to justice.

Judi Evans, head of Family Practice Group, St John’s Chambers, Bristol

Fellowship scheme fits with our core values

Pump Court Chambers was selected as the first London set to take part in The Legal Education Foundation’s 2016 JFF pupillage programme. The pupillage will be predominantly with the family team, with a focus on publicly funded work across a wide range of areas, encompassing private and public law children, financial remedies, and inheritance.

Established over 70 years ago as a family law set dedicated to providing high quality legal services and committed to working to the highest ethical standards, we are committed to equal opportunities across the Bar and providing access to justice, serving the public through all forms of publicly funded work, mediation and pro bono work. The promotion of access to justice, rule of law and equal opportunities is at our core. As a set committed to those values, we feel strongly that high-calibre candidates, dedicated to advancing those aims, should be given a fair opportunity to become successful members of the Bar in an increasingly competitive environment.

Our JFF pupil, Naima Asif, was selected after an intense recruitment procedure. Naima’s application also showed an excellent commitment to and experience in pro bono work, including having volunteered to single-handedly represent a defendant facing the death penalty in Pakistan in a successful appeal, reducing the sentence to one of life imprisonment. Naima will have the opportunity to undertake a project of her choice while being employed with the Bar Pro Bono Unit, and she is currently in discussions with chambers and the Unit about the precise details of the project.

Jennifer Lee is a member of the Pupillage & Tenancy Committee, at Pump Court Chambers, London