When the parents of ‘child D’ learned that the local authority wanted to have their son adopted outside his family, they called their solicitor.
But the parents of ‘D’ are disqualified from receiving legal aid because the father, who has learning difficulties, earned £34.64 above the monthly limit of £733 set by the government.
The 13th annual National Pro Bono Week (NPBW), sponsored by the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), is taking place between 3 – 7 November 2014 – more here
Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division at the Royal Courts of Justice questioned the lack of funding available for the parents’ legal representation. ‘They cannot afford private representation. They are wholly dependent on the good will of members of the legal profession,’ he said.
Child D’s parents need a solicitor to help them navigate the vast and complicated world of family law. They need a solicitor in order to fully understand what is happening and what their rights are, to present their case. Without a solicitor, they are at an extreme disadvantage.
Rebecca Stevens, a solicitor at Withy King who specialises in cases involving children, is providing her services free of charge to D’s parents because they can not afford private legal representation. Her work – which so far has amounted to over 100 hours of free legal support was described by Sir James as ‘far beyond the call of duty’.
The solicitor was astounded to discover the father of D was not eligible for public funding. She said he’s proud to financially support his family yet was being penalised for this. ‘I feel that I have a moral obligation to assist my client and did not think twice about representing him pro bono,’ she said.
This is National Pro Bono Week, a chance to highlight cases like this, and to stress the importance of legal pro bono work in assisting access to justice for thousands of people like D’s parents.
Last year, solicitors in England and Wales undertook an average of 55 hours of Pro Bono work each. The scale and scope of unpaid work carried out by our profession is humbling.
Legal aid cuts and wider funding cuts are chipping away at access to justice. While pro bono work will never plug the gap, it is becoming even more vital if we are to have a justice system for all, not just for those who can afford it.
Speaking this week, the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC, MP said that over the last decade pro pono work and the coordination of lawyers working collaboratively and sharing best practice has grown to be one of the biggest areas of charity and voluntary work.
But we must continue to shout out loud that amid the continued cuts and steady erosion of access to justice, pro bono can not and should never be viewed as an alternative to legal aid, but as a complement to it. Andrea Coomber, the Director of Justice, said pro bono is a ‘sticking plaster over a gushing wound’, and I agree.
Pro bono has neither the resources nor the infrastructure to replace legal aid, but it is a vital lifeline for people like D’s father, or for the family facing eviction, or the person seeking asylum from persecution.
Andrew Caplen is the president of the Law Society. He is a consultant with Heppenstalls, a predominantly private client firm in Hampshire with offices in Lymington and New Milton