Pro bono: Public spirited

With cuts in Legal Aid, Manchester’s public law pro bono scheme is providing a vital service

Legal Aid

From 1 April 2013 the controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will introduce a wide range of changes to the justice system as well as delivering cuts to the £2bn legal aid budget.

Lawyers warn that by removing legal aid from cases concerning employment, housing (except in cases involving homelessness or risk to health and safety), debt (except in cases relating to certain proceedings where the home is at risk), and most welfare benefit cases (except for welfare benefit appeals in the Upper Tribunal and higher courts), there will be a steep increase in ‘litigants-in-person’, who appear in the civil courts without legal representation.

One scheme that has been set up as a reaction to this development is the Manchester Public Law Pro-Bono Scheme. This is a free advice centre at the city’s Civil Justice Centre operated by the Northern Administrative Law Association in conjunction with Irwin Mitchell and the University of Manchester.

The scheme offers a two-tier system. The first is an appointment-based advice service for those wanting to bring a judicial review claim where a qualified lawyer and two students give practical advice on the claim.

The second tier is where litigants in person who have failed to obtain permission for judicial review on paper are referred by the court to the service in order for a solicitor-advocate or barrister, assisted by two students, to present an oral application seeking permission.

Sam Karim, a barrister at Kings Chambers and the scheme’s director, says it is “the type of service needed at a time like this when government austerity measures have severely cut back on legal aid. The Ministry of Justice has made £350m of cuts and this has left many deserving people without any recourse to the court system simply because they can no longer afford it. The result is that people increasingly have to represent themselves as litigants in person, which is a daunting prospect even for the most determined individual.

“The courts were seeing a lot of litigants in person and were finding that hearings that should take half an hour were taking three hours and realised we could assist.”

Commending the work of court staff, Karim says: “This couldn’t work without the court signing up for this with us – even when resources are being cut they are still willing to help.”

While the service was launched officially last November, it had already been running for nearly three months and in that time the service had dealt with four oral hearings.

Focusing on the benefits for students, Karim says: “Students are getting to see cases coming through the appointments system, giving advice and then working on the case when it comes through the court referral system. That means they can see almost the full circle of the case.”

One such student is Wesley Coburn, a third-year law student who hopes to practise at the bar one day. “You don’t just go away and do research,” he says. “You also see how it’s done in practice and that’s a great help to my legal education.”

Coburn has been involved in two applications for permission to apply for judicial review, the first was unsuccessful but the second was adjourned on a point of law. “The scheme’s been great as it’s shown me an underlying interest in administrative law – I had done well on my public law subject but to see it in practice has helped me to see that I’d like to practise in that area,” he says.

Coburn, who has won an award for his work at the university’s legal advice centre, is passionate about the project and the legal aid reforms that have led to the need for it. “This isn’t just affecting immigration cases but also benefits issues,” he says. “People are being refused disability benefits when they should receive them, but they have nowhere to go to for help and don’t have a lawyer.

“These are real people involved, this isn’t about going to a commercial law firm and making rich people richer, this is about real people who need help.”

Fellow law student Jade Elliott-Archer is also in her third year, but she aims to become a solicitor and has already secured a training contract with Irwin Mitchell. “I’m interested in public law in general but it was also a good experience working with someone from Irwin Mitchell,” she says.

Elliott-Archer points out that students are encouraged to get involved. “It’s a really good experience watching how the professionals do it, but we also get the opportunity to join in and ask questions if we feel the need,” she enthuses.

As she notes, however, the scheme cannot help everyone and is set up to focus on public law cases.

“At one of the drop-in sessions a man came in who was involved in a very complicated case with a lot of issues, but in that event the scheme was unable to help as it was not a public law issue, but we were still able to refer him to the university’s legal advice centre,” she says.

In addition to the practical knowledge gained of public law, the experience was also helpful when applying to Irwin Mitchell.

“I talked to Mathieu Culverhouse [an Irwin Mitchell associate working on the scheme] about my interest in public law and he contacted the Birmingham office where I did my vacation scheme to tell them about my interest,” she says.

“So during the vacation scheme I got involved in the public law department, where I had the opportunity to showcase my skills and interest in public law.”

And what about the future? Karim says the scheme has capacity to handle up to eight oral hearings and between 10 and 15 appointments a month, but that in future students from other universities and colleges could become involved and the scheme can be expanded to cover Leeds and Birmingham.