As lockdown continues to ease, we could well see an explosion in family law cases. Think the annual post-Christmas misery – when divorce requests are at a high – multiplied exponentially. There are other pressing legal needs that may arise from peoples change in circumstances since the pandemic, from housing to employment and consumer issues.
Now is a good time to make a call for pro-bono volunteers so that all those who have advice needs can access that advice. The need for legal help has probably never been greater from a sector that has been - like many others - catapulted online.
Arguably the process of pro-bono volunteering can be a lot easier online. At the Law Clinic at the University of Essex, in the good old pre-Covid days, we would welcome our pro-bono solicitors on to campus to give advice or supervise students as they interviewed clients.
Often bedraggled after a long day in the office, they would traipse across town, bravely battling the traffic of Colchester, circle campus cark parks searching for a space before wandering, probably a little hungry and tired to the clinic, sometimes then for the client not to turn up. That’s all now changed.
Since the lockdown, a number of law clinics across the country have gone virtual. Client interviews with students and pro-bono solicitors or clinic supervisors take place via Zoom. This means cases can take place anytime during the day to suit the solicitor (and the client), travel time is non-existent and the impact of a client not clicking the link to turn up to the appointment, does not induce the same level of wasted time frustration.
Finding ways to do pro-bono virtually is relatively straightforward. Pro-bono help and support is being welcomed with real and virtual open arms by many university law clinics and advice agencies. While other legal advice agencies need help, helping with university law clinics means an investment in the future. Students learn so much from watching clients being advised by pro-bono solicitors.
Likewise, students gain a brilliant opportunity, before and after a case, to engage with a solicitor which for many, is not something they would ordinarily do. Also, very importantly, students observing pro-bono solicitors and recognising the crucial role they play, could well instil in them a commitment to pro-bono during their own working lives. Post LASPO, there is another very important aspect of the student and pro-bono solicitor relationship. By seeing this huge need for pro-bono help, caused by the cuts in legal aid, students can gain some understanding of the enormity of what has been lost.
At the Essex Law Clinic, we devote teaching time to legal aid. We try hard to engender in students an understanding of how legal aid evolved and how, why and when much of it was taken away. We focus on the impacts on those who have lost their ability to access justice, individual solicitors who lost their jobs and specialisms and law firms which lost large areas of publicly funded work causing some to shut or radically change their practices and even ethos. The next generation of solicitors will not have known what it was like to have an adequate legal aid system and so unless they learn what was lost, they will never have the knowledge, understanding and passion to fight for some kind of similar publicly funded legal assistance in the future.
Law Centres offer another option to volunteer. Clients are often seen by pro-bono solicitors in various specialist areas of law with family law always being in high demand. Again, many law centres are now offering their services via phone, email or online. LawWorks (formerly the Solicitors Pro-Bono Group) is also a good starting point. It lists national and geographical volunteering opportunities on its website, and it runs its own projects.
For solicitors, this kind of activity can have its own benefits. For example, a solicitor on furlough leave - although this in itself is unlikely in some busy areas of law such as family - may welcome this client engagement as a way of using skills and keeping up to date with issues arising. With some training provision, for example via LawWorks Secondary Specialism Programme, solicitors could give at least initial information in areas outside their expertise.
Helping students learn is one benefit of virtual pro-bono. Helping solicitors use their skills and experience in a relatively timely way is another. But the greatest benefit is that to the client.
Virtual services are not perfect. The obvious question is what about the people who, due to physical or other difficulties, are unable to use Zoom or whatever platform is chosen and/or those with no internet, laptop, tablet or phone? Whilst in lockdown, there is little chance of the agencies and services, which could have helped these people access and use the technology, of being able to assist. Sadly, they are often the most vulnerable and the most difficult to help.
Face-to-face services in law clinics, law centres and other agencies will at some point re-open, giving face-to-face pro-bono opportunities for advice. However, virtual pro-bono services are probably here to stay. There are of course negatives online and the client, pro-bono solicitor and student experience will inevitably differ. But it is hoped that the unexpected positives of virtual advice outweigh this. Equally it is hoped that alongside the likely surge in family and other cases in the near future, there will be a corresponding surge in solicitors offering their pro-bono services.
For more information on pro-bono work and how to get involved, visit the Law Works website.
Liz Fisher-Frank, Law Society family law committee member and law clinic supervisor and lecturer at the University of Essex
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.