Pro Bono: working for the community

Through pro bono work students get a chance to do some real-life lawyering and help the community in the process

Pro bono is the Latin phrase used to refer to free legal advice it is short for pro bono publico, which translates as for the public good. Pro bono work sees lawyers give free legal assistance to those who are ineligible for legal aid, but who are unable to afford legal fees.

At a student level pro bono is an excellent way to get involved in some real-life lawyering. Pro bono work can be as high profile as the case undertaken by Imran Khan, who advised the Lawrence family in pursuit of justice for the murder of their son Stephen, or as simple as giving someone advice on how to set up a small business.

Only fully qualified lawyers are allowed to advise on a pro bono basis, but students can also get involved under suitable supervision. When it takes place in a law school setting it is sometimes referred to as clinical work or clinical legal education.

For many students the chance to help solve real peoples legal problems is an attractive proposition, especially as it could be some years before they actually come face-to-face with a real client; pro bono can also
help students see how law applies in real-life situations. Another advantage is that it offers the chance to get some CV-enhancing experience.

Undergraduate law schools, apart from a few notable exceptions, have failed to embrace pro bono and in many students have had to run pro bono projects themselves. Law school heads, especially those at the more traditional universities, have claimed that students are not interested in taking part in pro bono and that it is too expensive to organise, although this is contradicted by the amount of students who continue to run their own programmes.

The situation is rosier at postgraduate law schools and in some cases pro bono is actually built in to the course. If this interests you it is worth checking out what individual schools offer.

Law firms and students can also become involved in non-legal pro bono work, sometimes called community action. This is basically anything to do with being a volunteer, such as taking reading classes at a school, coaching homeless people in life skills, or useful physical pursuits, such as clearing derelict land or gardening.

CASE STUDY 1

The Inns of Court law school at Londons City University runs a regular pro bono clinic in conjunction with human rights and civil liberties charity Liberty.

Overseen by a Liberty solicitor, students at the school help the charity to respond to some of the many hundreds of letters it receives each year from people who want to know whether their legal rights are being breached.

In December 2005 the charity received a letter from a student of social work whose Criminal Records Bureau check, compulsory for all social workers, mistakenly identified her as having been convicted for two counts of child abduction, excluding her from future practice.

Two LPC students, Nikola Lowry and Sophie Mills, helped consult the law books to help Liberty to find the
best advice to give her. They found that, rather than being a human rights issue, the mistake should first be addressed under the Police Act 1997 and the Data Protection Act 1998, giving her a solid legal framework under which to resolve the problem.

CASE STUDY 2

Queen Mary University in East London runs an undergraduate pro bono group. Among other relationships the group works with the Disability Law Service, a independent charity offering legal advice on disability issues.

In August 2006 Sarah Webster, a third-year student at Queen Mary, helped to advise a disabled man who had been unable to access the toilet at his local supermarket.

Access is a crucial issue for disabled people, who can find themselves restricted and humiliated by ill-equipped facilities. Also, because supermarket buildings are often designed to templates, dealing with the problem at one branch of a supermarket could also lead to changes at others.

Webster identified the problem as being a consumer contract issue, meaning that the supermarket should provide accessible facilities as part of its legal obligations as a retailer. She then helped the client to book an appointment with a Disability Law Service solicitor to progress the case, and wrote a briefing from which to begin.