Published: 15 September 2015
Charities such as the Bar Pro Bono Unit are facing mounting pressure from people who need legal assistance, with the number of applications almost doubling over the past three years, due to widespread legal aid cuts in England and Wales.
Established in 1996, the Bar Pro Bono Unit (BPBU) was set up as a charity to help those involved in civil cases who weren't entitled to legal aid and who can't afford professional legal representation. Almost 4,000 barristers and QCs have donated their valuable time and skills to the BPBU, with a large proportion of the BPBU 's funding coming from chambers, barristers and the bar, however they are now struggling to meet current demand.
There is now far greater demand for free legal advice and representation than ever before, which is putting strain on the BPBU and those barristers and solicitors generous enough to lend their time to help those in need. Many solicitors and legal professionals have warned that pro bono work should not be used to plug any gap left by the removal of legal aid.
BPBU Chief Exec Jess Campbell revealed that they hope to increase the number of volunteers and employ another caseworker to help lighten the current load, "We are seeing a 30% increase in applications year on year. The bar has always supported pro bono work and giving unbilled hours."
"It’s in the nature of the profession to do it. The difference now, however, is that barristers are being asked to do work that they would previously have been paid for. Some find it quite galling. They are entitled to feel that. They are being squeezed but the unit is very lucky that the ethos of the bar means we are still getting volunteers and funding from the bar. We still have barristers specialising in housing, family, employment and immigration law – the areas hit hardest – picking up cases."
One of the areas that the BPBU hope to improve is the geographic reach of their services, as pro bono support is used in London far more than anywhere else, due to the large concentration of legal professionals based in the capital. Jess Campbell added, "The problem is the allocation rate. Once cases have been approved by our reviewing barristers, there are still some we can’t place with volunteer barristers. We have to find out why. It may be there’s a finite amount of ability or difficulties in reaching courts. Whilst we do not aim to replace legal aid, we do need more volunteers outside London.”
A caseworker at the BPBU has revealed that family law is one hardest hit areas but it is also an area where expertise is needed the most. Many large pro bono programmes in the Capital don't cover many aspects of family law, which is another factor that is increasing demand. "It’s the family cases that we struggle with. The number of divorce and custody applications shot up as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in 2012 [which cut legal aid funding]."
National Family Law organisation Resolution have also echoed the concerns of the BPBU when it comes to family law, as they have revealed that two thirds of cases currently in progress at the family courts include at least one party who is representing themselves (know as a Litigant in Person), as they can't afford professional legal representation.
If your relationship is on the verge of a breakdown and you require some legal advice on the options available to you then K J Smith Solicitors are here to help. We offer a free 45 minute consultation where we can discuss your circumstances with you and advise you on the best course of action. For more information, or to arrange a consultation, contact K J Smith Solicitors today on 01491 630000 (Henley on Thames), 020 7070 0330 (London), 0118 418 1000 (Reading), 01753 325000 (Windsor), 01256 584000 (Basingstoke) or 01483 370100 (Guildford) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.