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As legal aid declines, there are a number of different ways lawyers can help to fill the gap
Last week significant changes to the system of legal aid were implemented. There will be a substantial decline in the number of cases funded and, in some areas of law, funding has been removed entirely. The impact on legal advice centres will be catastrophic, coming on top of successive annual reductions in funding.
We will see the closure of law centres that can no longer fund advisers and assistance, and substantial reductions in the services those that survive are able to offer - all at a time of rising demand.
Our laws are too complicated for even intelligent and articulate individuals to establish their rights successfully without legal help they cannot afford and the Government will no longer fund.
The need for the legal profession to step in to help try to fill the gaping hole has never been greater. Already, much good work is being done by many people in helping to support the pro bono sector.
Whether it be by fundraising - the Legal Walks are a big source of funding to those organisations facilitating pro bono advice - or by the giving of time in advising or taking on cases pro bono, many lawyers are doing a great deal to support pro bono work.
Yet more is needed; without it, too many people will not have access to justice.
There are lots of ways in which help can be given and most do not involve money. Time is precious, and offering support and connections can be of great benefit.
Even a little time given to help organisations that will soon be overwhelmed is bound to make a huge difference.
Another way to help is by addressing the issue of pro bono costs. Every pro bono case is a potential source of funds for the pro bono sector, because almost any civil court can make a pro bono costs order.
Pro bono costs are like ordinary costs, except that a party receives free legal representation. If your client wins, the losing side need not benefit from your free work - you can seek a pro bono costs order, so the other side also has a costs risk to consider.
The amount of this is based on what a paying client would have recovered. The beneficiary of that costs award is, in accordance with s194 of the Legal Services Act 2007, the Access to Justice Foundation (ATJF).
ATJF distributes the money it recieves through the Legal Support Trusts to frontline providers of pro bono services.
More money is coming in from pro bono costs orders, but the amount is still small in comparison with the number of pro bono cases that are being taken. This should be a significant source of longer term revenue for the pro bono sector and we need help to ensure these costs are claimed.
So pro bono costs, dormant client account funds and fundraising for the Legal Walks are just a few of the ways in which we can all get involved in helping to support the pro bono sector.
There are, of course, many other ways to help, but the critical thing is to do something - your help is needed more than ever.