Funding pro bono activity is one of the key ways in which we reach our key strategic aim to fund quality specialist legal advice. Although by definition pro bono advice is provided free of charge, the infrastructure that enables it to take place does need funding. Funds raised from pro bono costs orders are invested back into sustaining pro bono and access to free legal advice. From our fundraising efforts we also raise vital funds which go to support organisations providing free legal advice across the UK.
Last year, we launched a pro bono grants programme and received 111 applications for funding with a total ask of over £2,750,000. This demand (as always) outstripped the funding available but did give us the opportunity to learn from the snapshot of the pro bono sphere and what would be required to maintain it at its current level.
We awarded grants totalling £119,399 to nine organisations working to provide pro bono legal support where it was needed most. Later, I’ll go on to share the learning we gathered from the grantees.
The programme aimed to further one or more of the following objectives:
- Increase and/or sustain pro bono provision at a regional/ local level in areas of family and/ or social welfare law.
- Increase and/or sustain the availability of pro bono provision in areas of family and/ or social welfare law through staff and/or volunteer training.
- Increase the availability of access to justice in family and/ or social welfare law for those who may be vulnerable and/or are living in poverty.
Who did we fund?
Advocate sought funding to increase their regional reach and our funding supported the recruitment of a caseworker to increase the provision of pro bono services in the Midlands region of England. Advocate are, driving up the delivery of pro bono by establishing a national network of active Pro Bono Champions, engaging more barristers nationally and piloting de-centralised staff.
Agnes Smith Advice Centre
Agnes Smith covers the area of Blackbird Leys outside of Oxford and which sees multiple deprivation. Their pro bono legal advice clinic supports people to access their legal rights and find long-term solutions to their welfare benefits, debt and housing matters. Our funding has helped them to expand their legal advice offering to include family, community care and employment law.
Bristol Law Centre
Bristol Law Centre run a weekly pro-bono clinic on family, employment and civil litigation matters and saw high demand in family matters and housing enquiries increasing as people were pushed to the limit by the rising cost of living. Our funding supported a rota that includes 14 solicitor firms, 53 volunteer fee-earners and 17 paralegals.
Canolfan Gyfraith Speakeasy Law Centre
Speakeasy Law Centre sought to re-establish their employment law pro bono clinic, following its closure at the start of the pandemic. With our funding, they were able to engage with pro bono volunteers in the area to begin re-establishing the service.
Citizens Advice St Albans District
Citizens Advice St Albans District covers an area with very little specialist advice provision. Our funding supported a pro bono law clinic that supports housing, family, benefits and employment issues, at a time when cost of living increases affected those most vulnerable in the area. They noted a huge demand for employment and family advice. Offering an in-person service for clients but a largely phone-based delivery model for volunteers has allowed Citizens Advice St Albans to increase their volunteer pool by widening their geographical area.
Free Family Representation & Advocacy Project
With our funding, Free Family Representation & Advocacy Project (FFRAP) has set up an at court service, providing family representation for litigants in person at Central Family Court. Their service supports separated families at their hearings as well as towards settlement so that cases are taken out of the court system.
Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit
2023 is the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the MV Empire Windrush in the United Kingdom. Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) partners with 8 city firms to support survivors to secure compensation for their historic losses through the Windrush Compensation Scheme. The funding has also allowed them to take on a greater number of complex cases, at review stage where applicants had received no compensation, with more impact on the lives of those affected. This has also greatly impacted on the narrative that there is a lack of applicants within the Windrush Survivor community.
North Yorkshire Citizens Advice and Law Centre
North Yorkshire Citizens Advice and Law Centre run a small-scale family pro bono service in a county with extremely rural areas with aging populations, where poor transport and communication links are also barriers to access to justice. Our funding has allowed them to explore increasing their service offering, and the accessibility of pro bono legal advice in housing, employment, community care and immigration law.
Scottish Child Law Centre
Scottish Child Law Centre saw increased demand for services to support a greater understanding of the rights of all children in Scotland, and their families. One of their aims was to increase the diversity of clients supported by their services, and with our funding they worked with partners to establish and hold a community clinic for 6 weeks in the most diverse and deprived area in Glasgow.
What we learned
We drew insights from our grantees on the state of the pro bono landscape. Our grantees highlighted four key points to me
During the pandemic, our grantees noticed that professionals were more likely to volunteer as pro bono projects switched to a more flexible and remote model. After that period, as they returned to their offices and the rise in cost of living began to take effect, lawyers had less time and were less able to do unpaid work; this highlighted to me how important it is for volunteers to have a firm-wide support and for our grantees to have firm-wide commitment.
Just like how a firm requires legal executives, paralegals and other support to run an effective service, pro bono services also need similar resourcing and infrastructure. Basic project costs can often go overlooked and I have seen how these unexpected costs have become a larger issue as these small projects navigate the cost of living crisis.
Pro bono volunteers have the opportunity to use their expertise to support advice giving organisations, to collaborate on the delivery of pro bono projects. One grantee was able to provide a more effective service to their clients by ensuring sufficient time was allocated for pro bono appointments slots, following guidance from their volunteer firm. Our grantees also told me that there continues to be a skills gap in the pro bono offering which means they can’t cover key areas of social welfare law.
Pro bono is specialist advice
Pro bono provision is specialist advice provision. It sits alongside frontline advice and helps maintain critical advice capacity to support people facing legal crisis. Our pro bono funding allows organisations to reach those who could most benefit from specialist pro bono advice, supports their journey and ensures pro bono volunteers can focus their time on advice giving. However, one of the main issues we hear from grantees is how their pro bono projects often have to be the first to be cut and are the last services to be funded. Our funding aims to support this vital specialist service so that resources aren’t taken away from other frontline services.
As always, we have learned lots from the charities we have funded and I am grateful for their time and their willingness to share their experiences. Pro bono work is a vital tool for the delivery of specialist legal advice and we continue to raise funds through pro bono costs orders and broader fundraising activity so we can support more organisations like these. Current income levels mean we are unable to provide multi-year grants for this work, and we would like this to change.
You can find out more about how you can be part of the picture to help support organisations like these here – Support Us – The Access To Justice Foundation (atjf.org.uk)
By Sirintiya Booth-Roberts, Grants Manager, The Access to Justice Foundation