Last week was National Pro Bono Week, and it coincided with
the launch of the
Bristol Pro Bono Family Scheme. I'd like to say it was a
perfectly orchestrated plan, but in truth, the pro bono scheme took a long time
to set up (over a year), and so it was rather by accident than design that the
launch on 5 November fell within National Pro Bono Week.
How was it? Only time and feedback will tell, I guess.
Will it help LiPs who cannot afford legal advice, to summon
the courage to enter a Court room without a lawyer, and give them some sort of road map as to where they and
their children need to be headed, along with a small degree of realism? I hope so.
Will this free 30 minutes enable LiPs to conduct a contested
hearing? Address legal issues? Cross-examine
and make submissions? No, a resounding
No from me. A free 30 mins legal help
couldn't possibly prepare a person for the complexities of litigation. If that was the case, what on earth have we
all been doing spending years of our time reading law and doing Bar Finals? Mastering
law and procedure, and different terminology, on top of managing heightened
emotions about your child is a big ask for a LiP. Some would say it is
So, what does the scheme involve?
The scheme runs every Thursday from 10am - 4pm. There are seven appointment slots, with 15
minutes breaks in between. Its not a 'children day' for first appointments, so
people wanting advice are not waiting to go in to Court. The advice does not
include representation in Court. The
commitment from lawyers prepared to volunteer will be to offer one day a year
to the scheme.
Anyone wanting 30 minutes free legal advice needs to book a
slot through the PSU. The PSU then send
the booking form to the 'duty lawyer' on a Tuesday to conflict check the
names. The booking form contains a
summary of the issues.
so, I put my name down to do Thursday, 5 November, which happened to be the
first ever session. Then a funny thing happened. Life got in the way. Life that
involves paying the mortgage and having a responsibility to others who need my help
every bit as much.
A private law case for a client I had represented on a
number of occasions previously, was listed at 2pm for directions on the same
day. Should I swap with someone else on the pro bono rota? Cause inconvenience
and confusion with a risk that the same thing will happen again? Should I
return the afternoon case? What about my poor client, who needed continuity? I
knew the history. It wasn't fair to let that person down.
In the end it was simplest to do both, starting earlier at
9.30, and doing five free advice slots instead of seven. Finishing just after 1pm, and then doing my
And that's the point with pro bono. It will never be a
substitute for properly funded legal advice and representation, those of us who
volunteer will do our best. But you cannot
run a justice system on the good will of people who have other commitments to fulfil.
It is the tiniest droplet of help in an ocean of need.
Following the introduction of LASPO the number of
applications for private law orders at the Bristol CJC fell by about 40%. I
understand there has been an increase in applications by about 15% this year
... will the pro bono scheme make a difference? Will it enable more people to
feel confident enough to seek help?
So, what was it like last Thursday? What of the people I
met? Obviously I cannot give too many details, these things are confidential,
but what was interesting was that all who attended (apart from one) were
contemplating litigation, but worried about doing so. Care worn, confused, and
highly anxious even desperate is how I would describe them. ‘Its taking over my
life, and it hasn't even started’, said one young woman, as she tried to soothe
her small infant to sleep and listen to me and make notes.
And so, I talked, and answered questions about mediation,
procedure, s 1 of the Children Act 1989, how to address a judge, confirmed they
could be cross-examined by their ex-partner and discussed why we put the
child's welfare at the centre of the case.
Made referrals in one complex matter to the Bar Pro Bono Unit, referred
people to the www.familycourtinfo.org.uk website, encouraged people to think
through what they thought was best for their child, and to look at it from the
other parents’ point of view. Even, in
one case, handing out the duty rota list to a person who wanted to pay for
legal advice before each hearing but to self represent at Court. Is this
unbundled services? (Under the scheme we can subsequently act for those we meet, provided we give that person
a copy of the duty rota, to draw attention to other lawyers on the list.)
so, whilst I understand the (legitimate) point of view of those who say that pro
bono is helping /colluding with legal aid cuts, I cannot agree with it. The scheme is never, ever, going to replace
proper state funded help, given to people who need it, in a timely manner, for
the sake of our next generation. At
best, I hope the scheme will operate so as to encourage/empower people to take the first steps to seeking
legal redress though the Courts as an option of last resort.