National Pro Bono Week offers all of us a chance to promote justice for everyone.
Rosa Parks’ friend Mrs Johnnie Carr – one of the leaders at the heart of the Montgomery Bus Boycott – is not someone history remembers. Nor would she want it to be so – fighting for human rights is not an individual pursuit. It is, by definition, an act of collaboration.
‘That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave,’ Mrs Carr said to Bryan Stephenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, then just a young lawyer starting out. Now his organisation, and the pro bono lawyers who have supported it, can stand by an incredible record that has saved lives on death rows across the US and secured freedom for children condemned to die in prison.
In the UK, this year’s winner of the Women of the Year Outstanding Achievement award was Jayne Senior, a youth worker from Rotherham. Between 1999 and 2011, she worked with more than 1,700 children who were being groomed and sexually exploited. When her pleas for help repeatedly went unheeded by Rotherham council, she sought justice in another way – at huge personal risk – by blowing the whistle to a national newspaper.
In pockets and corners, highly motivated, creative and entrepreneurial people are bringing their energy to bear on the challenges of access to justice.
Julia Salasky has brought the potential of crowdfunding to the fight with the launch of CrowdJustice. This platform ‘harnesses the enormous power of communities’ to help raise money towards legal change. In the few short months since it launched, this has ranged from a man challenging the decision by his local council to move his beloved wife somewhere he could no longer care for her, through to an engineer fighting for the rights of a community in Colombia devastated by the oil industry.
Dr Alison Prendiville and her students on the Design for Social Innovation Masters course at the London College of Communication have been using design thinking to get under the skin of the real problems facing those excluded from justice. Through their work they have highlighted that many of those accessing free legal advice do not technically have legal problems yet. What they are looking for is someone to help them before the situation deteriorates to navigate the maze of rights and responsibilities that they find themselves in. Their work is opening up new understanding of how and what kind of legal help will make the greatest difference.
The Baring Foundation has launched a programme that focuses on supporting collaboration between the legal and the non-legal to integrate access to justice throughout the delivery of services to the disempowered. The decision to focus their work in this way is based on research conducted by Neil Crowther. He highlights an urgent need to better locate legal interventions as part of a wider programme.
In recent months, we have seen the continued disenfranchisement of our most vulnerable neighbours as services are cut and policy changes reduce accessibility. Meanwhile, the refugee crisis on our doorstep continues to grow and the new Sustainable Development Goals revitalise the struggle against global poverty.
Progress is also being made to make pro bono easier for the whole profession to engage in. Following pressure from the profession, the SRA has indicated it will reduce the barriers to in-house lawyers participating in pro bono. There is still more to be done, for example to challenge the new regulation of consumer credit and debt advice, which effectively excludes many organisations and clinics from providing this pro bono to clients.
The opportunities for us to turn our skills, creativity and courage to help others are many. With National Pro Bono Week upon us shortly, it is a chance to think about how we can each play our own small part in making justice for all a step closer to becoming a reality.
Rachael Marsh is a human rights and criminal justice consultant, formerly working at LawWorks and the Centre for Criminal Appeals