Guest blog: Aidan Seymour-Butler, law student. Is pro bono the best way forward?

18 May 2016

sussex law student

Brighton Housing Trust (BHT) is a homelessness organisation operating in the Brighton, Hove, Eastbourne and Hastings areas as well as other locations in East Sussex with its mission set on, 'combating homelessness, creating opportunities, promoting change'. BHT Legal Advice Centre on Queens Road, Central Brighton, has been host to clinical legal project BHT Pro Bono between Sussex Law School and BHT, where students are supervised by housing lawyers to give legal advice at the centre, as well as research and administrative work.  This help has been much welcomed by BHT, as recently due to the cuts to legal aid funding the advice centre lost half of its staff formerly working in those areas where the cuts took effect.

On Saturday the 12th of March 2016, BHT, in association with University of Sussex Clinical Legal Education, held a workshop at the St Stephen's Hall (BHT's First Base Day Centre), Brighton, addressing the question of whetherpro bono is the best way forward in tackling the shortfall of state funded legal aid. The event was attended by a combination of legal academics, lawyers, legal aid practitioners, representatives from the housing sector, politicians and students.

Andy Winter (the Chief Executive of BHT) welcomed the attendees by giving them all a brief history of St Stephen's Hall and how it went from being a banqueting hall for King George at the Brighton Pavilion to First Base Day Centre (a facility that offers a range of support to the homeless in Brighton). Andy Winter's welcome set the tone for the day, reminding us of the invaluable work that BHT does, and the necessity for charity and benevolence in times of austerity.

The first panel to grace the conference was the Sussex Clinical Legal Education Panel. They discussed the merits of the University's new clinical legal education module and why there was such a need for it in order to incorporate clinical legal work into the assessment and curriculum of the LLB.  The panel touched on why it's important for students to give back and be involved in the community, as well as the vocational benefits for the students, emphasizing the point employers have been increasingly making, that students are often far too academic and lack competence in practical situations.

The next panel was compromised of Simon Whitwell (BHT Digital Advice and Inclusion Officer), Hannah Brown (Sussex Law Student) and Nicole Lieberman (Birkbeck LLM student), who described their experience of working together as part of BHTPro Bonowork at BHT's Legal Advice Centre, and the research produced as part of the project.

Hannah relayed the positive effect herpro bonowork at BHT was having on her and how it exposed her to realties and difficulties of dealing with vulnerable people. She said it taught her how to empathise more with vulnerable people and about the harsh consequences of the legal aid cuts and austerity on those who need the help the most.

These consequences were further emphasized by research gathered by the BHTPro Bonoproject, and funded by the ESRC, compiled by Birkbeck LLM student Nicole Lieberman and Sussex Law former Sussex Law student, Mary Prescott. Key findings from the report entitled 'Case for Funding Housing Legal Aid in Sussex' were presented by Nicole, where she demonstrated the important impact legal aid support had on the housing situation in Brighton and how the cuts have affected it.  She highlighting that according to previous research conducted: "In 2013-14, negotiation or legal advocacy accounted for 61% of households whose homelessness was prevented thus enabling them to sustain their existing accommodation.  Whilst the number of cases in which homelessness was prevented due to negotiation or legal advocacy dropped to 35% in 2014-15".  The report also uncovered the financial benefits of legal aid support and housing benefits, drawing from research from Shelter, that a cost-benefit analysis in 2013 showed "that for every £1 spent on housing-related support the city of Brighton and Hove saved £4.11".

The conference took a break for lunch which was provided by 'Dine' (a social enterprise run by and for the homeless). Lunch was enjoyed while watching an animated film about the 'Legal Aid Team' produced by Fat Rat Films. After the film there was also an opportunity for guests to enjoy art work by people in temporary housing or who are homeless, lent to the workshop by the curators of 'Nesting' organised by Brighton-based homeless charity 'JustLife'.

Finally, the discussion panel took their seat to discuss the topic of "Is pro bono the best way forward?" The panel was made up of academics, professionals and myself (University of Sussex Law student), including:  Nigel Parkinson, Senior Solicitor, BHT, Martin Barnes, CEO, Law Works, Phil Drake, Huddersfield University, David Gibson, Living Rent Campaign and Councillor for Hanover and Elm Grove, Green Party, Rhona Friedman, Solicitor, Bindmans LLP, Justice Alliance, Alison Padfield, Bar Council Pro Bono Board and Amir Paz-Fuchs, Chair, Sussex Clinical Legal Education.

Everyone agreed thatpro bonois not a substantial replacement for state funded legal aid. There were discussions as to what exactly we mean bypro bono, and that it is not just benevolent lawyers giving their time, but increasingly law students. 

There were differing views regarding the benefits, importance and place ofpro bonoin the justice system. Some argued thatpro bonoallows the current government to avoid its duties to provide citizens with a legitimate means to access justice and that legal problems require competent and professional assistance rather than the basic assistancepro bonoworkers (such as students) can provide.

Those against pro bono being a sole solution to the current shortfall in free legal advice, also argued that in order for the public to understand the importance of legal aid it was necessary for them feel the effects of the cuts so that they may begin to demand the government return to their responsibilities of securing access to justice, a fair legal system and rule of law, through legal aid assistance.

Others argued that the benevolencepro bonostands for is important in these times of austerity and cuts, with audience member Professor Adam Gearey from Birkbeck School of Law, indicating how, despite all, it may be a positive opportunity to for students and practitioners alike to recreate a newpro bonoinspired poor lawyer, legal aid movement. There were arguments that it would be immoral to allow the public to suffer in their time of need, even ifpro bonois a temporary solution to a systematic problem.

I argued that from a student's prospective,pro bonoprovides a chance for students to develop into responsible lawyers who intend to make the law work better, not make the law work for them.Pro bonoprovides lawyers everywhere with the prospect of taking the narrative away from the idea that lawyers are all rich and privileged, living off the spoils of legal aid, but rather individuals who are ethical and act for the public good.

Every panellist raised valid points regarding the issue ofpro bonohowever, the only conclusion that was made is that somehow in some way we must get legal aid back.  Interestingly, the only lack of demographic as part of the panel were those who had initiated or were part of the political establishment who supported the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and the impacts the workshop was convened around to discuss.

After the final panel the conference came to an end, Dr Lucy Finchett-Maddock (Lecturer in Law, University of Sussex, who I must also thank for hosting the whole event and chairing the panel) gave some closing remarks about the conference and how we must all play a part in ensuring that we preserve justice in the UK, in our own way. 

Aidan Seymour-Butler, LLB 2nd year student, Law School, University of Sussex