As we approach the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in April, I cannot help but think about my visit to Uganda in November. There, access to justice is a daily challenge for both citizens and the legal system. A society where legal assistance lies far beyond most people’s financial means is truly not something we should be moving towards.
In awe and envy of our system, Ugandan lawyers and students were shocked and saddened to hear how publicly funded services are gradually being withdrawn in the UK. While the UK is cutting back, an initiative to improve access to justice is under way in Africa.
The Uganda Law Society – funded by a grant from Norway – operates a legal aid project from 10 law centres across the country. Over the course of 12 months, 36 legal officers manage a caseload of more than 10,000 files. Some 60% of cases are land disputes. Many others relate to domestic violence and physical assaults on children. The caseworkers have been heavily reliant on the support of a number of advocates and law students who give their services free of charge, but the centres are still forced to turn away clients on a daily basis because of a lack of resources. Proposals are being put forward for all qualified advocates to complete 40 hours of pro bono work each year, possibly at a legal aid centre, to be entitled to renew their practising certificates.
While we in the UK are witnessing an erosion of the legal aid foundation which provides access to justice to everyone, Uganda is seeking to establish exactly such a framework with pro bono work at the heart of it. As a family solicitor, I have lobbied to prevent cuts to family law public funding because I believe that this will limit access to justice for all those who cannot afford to pay privately for legal services. There are support and advice organisations out there, but are they equipped to fill the inevitable gap left by legal aid cuts? I say not.
I am sure many high street practitioners, like me, would say that they already offer pro bono services to the public – regularly delivering legal advice and representation without charge, or at discounted rates because otherwise a particular client would be left high and dry. City firms would say they already support pro bono projects as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes.
However, pro bono work is not properly co-ordinated and it seems client access to services is just the ‘luck of the draw’. Like the Uganda Law Society, can we develop a pro bono system to fill the gap of public funding? And would that be the right thing to do? The figure of 40 hours a year per solicitor is only one working hour per week, per fee-earner. But how would we fund the co-ordination of pro bono services, and how would we implement checks and measures? The Uganda Law Society seeks to co-ordinate pro bono work via its legal aid centres so that time can be measured, and for there to be a central place for potential clients to seek help.
Simpson Millar has been working with the Gateshead Community Legal Advice Centre, which last year relinquished its legal aid contract for family services because it could not deliver this service cost-effectively within the restraints of the legal aid payment structures. We are now plugging that gap by providing pro bono family law support to the Gateshead Citizen’s Advice bureau, which is housed in the same building. We believe we have a responsibility to do what we can, but will other law firms take the same view? Perhaps on this particular point, we would be wise to look to Africa for inspiration.
Emma Pearmaine is head of family law at Simpson Millar. She is a collaborative lawyer, a qualified mediator and a member of the Law Society’s Family Law Panel and Resolution.