Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship in order to study the pro bono world in the United States of America. Now I’m writing this on a Delta Airlines flight somewhere over the Atlantic, excited to begin the work I first envisioned a couple of years ago – in the rather less glamorous setting of an advice bureau in East London.
My research will look at various projects in America in order to consider whether there might be ideas, models or practices that could be transposed over to help strengthen access to justice this side of the Pond. To do that I’ll not only have to learn about the pro bono projects themselves, but also have to examine the context; the different culture, regulation, and even education systems that have an effect on how NGOs and community organisations provide free legal assistance both at home and in America.
We all know that, aside from a few recent victories, access to justice has been seriously damaged in this country over the last few years. In comparison, the justice system in America has long been a desert – where often even the Constitutional right to a criminal lawyer is threadbare or meaningless and the idea that you might be guaranteed a publicly funded lawyer in a civil case is alien.
It’s in this environment I hope to find new ideas – whether it be using new technology to put legal advice in the hands of hard to reach clients, justice buses that ship out lawyers to rural communities or models that make the most efficient use out of partner institutions like law schools or commercial firms.
I do not expect to be envious of what I find. In fact, I am well prepared to return to London filled with American horror stories and all the more commitment to raising my voice in support of a properly funded legal aid system.
But until there is a political sea change in the Ministry of Justice, those of us who are committed to access to justice must fight on all fronts. If this means using pro bono to try and prop up justice while the plans for rebuilding legal aid are put on hold, I firmly believe that we should do just that. It must be better than accepting injustice in the hope it will stir a sense of compassion that has so far been unseen.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to be writing a series of posts about my research and my travels along the way. If you want to get in touch you can contact me on twitter @ianjbrowne or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.