Cuts to Legal Aid have seen student projects bridge the gap between the most vulnerable and justice.
Pro bono has been an established aspect of law student training for decades, allowing students to practise their skills on real-live clients, and allowing clients with small-scale issues such as landlord and tenant disputes or arguments with an employer or neighbour, free explanation of their basic rights.
It was a good set up, placing just the right amount of responsibility in unsure students’ hands and assisting clients who, although they required assistance, were not in dire straits.
However, since the introduction of LASPO (the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill) a year ago, the balance of responsibility has shifted.
The first ever instance of asylum in Britain being secured on grounds of atheism was dealt with by a law student in Kent Law Clinic (14 January 2014). While the case was no doubt a worthy cause, and the student succeeded on behalf of her client, this was a historic case concerning an individual facing persecution upon extradition. The student, together with her supervisor, could clearly handle the case. The question is, should she have had to?
Last year saw a proliferation of new projects, many of which were designed to fill the legal aid gap.
Among many others initiatives, SOAS students signed up to a minimum six-month term supporting Camden’s “most vulnerable residents”, who often formed queues outside its law centre, while BPP’s clinic began catering for Londoners unable to access legal advice. Both schemes are propping up the legal aid system.
BPP at the time protested that, despite trying to stem the fall-out from Legal Aid, it was not trying to replace the system and it was right to do so. Students’ goodwill cannot, and should not, be replacing Government-funded advice.