As with most things in this game it all started with a contact - I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone at a legal advice centre in Luton, so I asked if there was a possibility of work experience. Whilst this wasn’t going to be doing exactly what I wanted to do, I figured I needed something on my cv and so I enthused to the Centre manager and somehow managed to negotiate a month’s experience in a pro bono capacity.
I was placed within the Centre’s employment rights unit, which uses legally trained advisers to give free advice to clients on all employment rights. They also offer to act as a companion or representative at internal company hearings and appeals or in any ACAS organised conciliation or tribunal, and they investigate, explore and advise on the appropriate course of action and negotiate, when and if appropriate, with employers. This service is provided for anyone in the local area who isn’t represented by any other body, and it is funded through legal aid contracts. As all budding law students will be aware, there’s a real issue with legal aid everywhere at the moment with the risk that this funding will dry up following the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. This is a bill that the Bar Council has voiced serious concerns about with the Chairman of the Bar, Peter Lodder QC, stating: "The bill proposals will cause great harm to ordinary people. We continue to make the case for access to justice in the strongest terms. There has been much public debate about sentencing. There must be a similar scrutiny of these wide-ranging proposed changes to legal aid. A cut-price, DIY justice system, which will actually end up costing more money, rather than saving it, is in no one's interests." Find out more about the proposed cuts and the Sound off for Justice campaign.
Back to the work experience - the daily work of the Centre included advice relating to contract of employment and casework regarding unfair dismissals and discrimination. As with most areas of the law, there is a very strict process that must be followed once the legal route has been chosen, and the average member of the public does not necessarily know these procedures. I personally had no idea about the strict time restraints regarding employment grievances for example. Again as with all legal cases, bundles are required for the tribunal and as every law student who has ever mooted knows, these are daunting and precious things to put together – even with full access to legal databases and a law library! Once a week I visited another centre, which helped immigrants with housing issues (like the joint tenancy agreement that has expired and the other party has disappeared leaving all the problems with the client) and some criminal issues. My favourite was the man who, whilst he understood the reasons why his van had been seized by HM Customs when he tried to smuggle over 30,000 cigarettes across the UK border, was very keen nevertheless that he get a refund on the unexpired portion of the road fund licence!
For areas of law that the Centre does not specialise in, for example family law, referrals are made to a local solicitors firm who offer such clients an initial free appointment and are then able to negotiate affordable rates (sometimes no win / no fee).
Big thanks to Verity Coutts (LLB3) for detailing her pro bono experience here.