‘The importance of making a difference through pro bono volunteering’ by Hannah Vo

Prior to studying the module W360 ‘Justice in action’, I was not sure what to expect, but was extremely excited for what might come. My core project was the Open Justice Law Clinic, which involved working in a team with other fellow students under the supervision of qualified solicitors with the aim of providing free legal advice to members of the public. I also undertook an extra-curricular activity called Digital Justice, which involved creating a web and app-based solution addressing different issues of employment law.

For each step that I took in the law clinic and Digital Justice,  I have received incredible support and the encouragement that I needed to keep on going by my W360 tutor and the Open Justice supervisor. During my participation in the law clinic, I have carried out different roles such as being a client contact person, an interviewer, a researcher, as well as drafting the proof of evidence and letters of advice. Through the Open Justice Digital project, I have learned how to use a simple website to create an Android app and made different decision trees. I have gain truly invaluable experience through these past four months, and I have been able to network with other students whilst improving my ability to work with different people. The teamwork has its challenges, but I have learned how important it is to work in groups because you truly cannot get far alone. We have supported each other in achieving our tasks and appreciated each other’s opinions.

I can reassure you that W360 : Justice in action will enrich your life whilst gaining relevant professional skills as I have mentioned above. Throughout my law degree, I have attended many legal and networking events, and so far, I have only heard about the importance of gaining legal work experience. If we could not get relevant legal work experience through, for instance, open days, vacation schemes, mini-pupillages, marshalling and so forth, then we should gain the relevant practical experience through pro bono volunteering because it would boost our CV and make us stand out. However, there is no mention whatsoever about the difference that we would make through pro bono volunteering. I will be completely honest that I chose this module sincerely to gain more employability skills. I wanted to gain practical legal experience to improve my prospects of obtaining a training contract at the end of my studies, just like I have been told all these years how important this is.

My first time I heard of the term ‘pro bono’ was in my first year of law school. I learned that it stands for ‘for the public good’, however, I did not know the importance of it until I have actually taken this module and completed my first case. I recall my team and I put our time and efforts in solving different legal issues. It was not easy and at the time very frustrating, but the moment when we sent the final letter of advice to the client and we knew that we have solved their issue, that feeling cannot be described. We just made a difference to someone else’s life, by using our legal knowledge to help a complete stranger in need without getting paid.

Through this module, I learned about the consequences of the legal aid cuts and different terms such as pro bono, social justice, professional identity, and legal ethics and values. I have also been given the opportunity to attend the Open Justice Street Law orientation in October 2018 and learned how to carry out a productive yet fun presentation with the focus on providing the members of the public with awareness, knowledge and understanding of different legal rights and issues through public legal education.

I have always thought that by volunteering I could make a difference to someone else’s life, but I never thought that volunteering would give my life more meaning. I have become more confident in different aspects of my life and have developed personal and professional skills. The value of pro bono legal work developed in the light of my participation in both the Open Justice activities has been vital and beyond my expectation. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: ‘the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’ I truly believe in those words. My desire to help people in need and the commitment to social justice has exceeded the desire to gain employability skills. I will definitely be involved in pro bono volunteering in the future because the experience will contribute to my further development and personal growth, which is considered as a great asset!

This journey has genuinely been personally fulfilling and rewarding.


Following a law student through a practical pro bono module (Part 2) By Sarah Couling

What happens when students and prisoners help one another?

When I left off last time, I was about to submit my final assignment before undertaking the practical pro bono projects. I am happy to report that I met the deadline and received some fantastic feedback that has assisted me in undertaking the projects. Having decided to separate the remaining portions of the blog; one for each project I have taken part in and a conclusion this blog will focus on my time in prison (and not for a crime).

I took part in a Prison Project at HMP Altcourse in Liverpool, which is a comfortable 2-hour drive from where I live in North Wales. Prior to our first of three sessions at the prison, we had a number of online meetings and set up a WhatsApp group to stay in touch. I think we all shared a similar level of nerves on that first arrival at the visitor’s centre of the prison. We were told to keep an open mind and be prepared to have our expectations shattered. But to imagine what it might be like was impossible.

Having been told not to forget out ID multiple times, we all checked in at the front desk and were given red ID badges to wear. We took note of the prominent signs that displayed all the items which were prohibited. Our phones were then switched off and stored in a locker on the outside. As we made our way to the university block, we passed though countless large metal doors that required locking on both sides. Our guide reassuringly told us that incidents don’t happen too frequently. I remember thinking ‘is it too late to change my mind and go back’?

I entered the prison tentatively with the preconceived idea that it would be like the movies, with orange jumpsuits and all. I was very wrong. It was only after entering the prison for the first time that I actually took the time to research and understand the purpose of a custodial sentence with rehabilitation at the forefront, which I have come to conclude is a wonderful thing.

We were given a full tour of the prison during the first session and my jaw hit the floor. The prison offered multiple classes and jobs for the prisoners. Teaching them a variety of skills from reading and writing, to art and practical skills. In one of the skills departments, the prison had little ‘bedrooms’ where they were taught to paint and decorate, giving the inmates invaluable practical skills for life after prison. I was amazed when walking through the university block, were the prisoner’s art work was on display. The talent that some of these young men have is breath-taking. It was lovely to see that they were able to pursue these passions, perhaps ones that they might not have discovered on the outside.

We stopped and had a chat with a prison mentor in the IT department. He told us how he went from knowing almost nothing about computers, but with his mentor’s support he learned so much. He then went on to become a mentor himself. It really was inspiring to see these men helping on another succeed.

Having left after that first session, I think we all had our eyes opened and our preconceptions shattered. Our purpose of entering the prison was to collect legal questions from the prisoners and present our answers on their radio station. I did not attend the second session at the prison due to prior commitments. However, the team tell me that they entered the vulnerable prisoner’s unit and collected a list of questions to go away and answer ready for the final session, our radio show. We split the questions up and began researching the answers. A fair few of the questions were related to subjects that we did not cover in the course of our LLB’s. However, the legal research skills we gained made finding authoritative sources of information easier. This was actually one of the questions we were asked on the day (whether finding the answers was easy).

The radio show was a success and we all presented our answers to the questions appropriately. Myself and my two colleagues answered a couple of questions on Imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences. This seemed to be a rather important question to the prisoners, and we did our very best to answer it for them. We also covered Home Detention Curfews, the rules surrounding spent convictions, the rules and requirements of the Sex Offenders Register, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, and the guidelines and rules surrounding sentencing. In addition to our legal questions, we all had to pick a song to be played, and it was a very eclectic mix of music. Including; Queen, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Toploader. I could not believe that the radio station was fully run by prisoners, with a friendly guard overseeing and assigning roles. It was wonderful to see the guard so visibly proud of the prisoner’s accomplishments, and rightly so as they were phenomenal. They were welcoming, kind, supportive, professional, and immensely talented at what they did.

I entered that prison thinking that I would be the one helping them, rather than them helping me. Again, I was wrong. I gained so much from the experience and I am so truly grateful to have met these fine young men. I fully support this type of prison program and I certainly encourage anyone with the opportunity to engage with prisoners to jump in. Programmes like this are helping to break down social barriers and create positive social change. They help change people’s attitudes towards different people, help to shatter incorrect preconceived ideas about prisons, and benefit both students and prisoners alike.

Louise Taylor: Independent Legal Representation for Crime Victims

In this guest post, Louise Taylor argues for a change in the way victims of crime are represented in the justice system. Louise is a full time PhD student with the OU Law school and is researching the development of a coercive control defence for domestically abused defendants. If you are considering studying for a law PhD and would like to contact Louise to discuss her experience of research, you can email her on louise.taylor@open.ac.uk

There are various points throughout the English and Welsh criminal justice process where victims would benefit from the provision of Independent Legal Representation (ILR) provided through the state-funded legal aid system. Such a development would be of particular benefit to victims in reducing the secondary victimisation that many experience as a result of their interactions with the Criminal Justice System.

Victim dissatisfaction and secondary victimisation can result from the lonely and sometimes hostile environment that victims are required to navigate in their pursuit of justice. This could be greatly ameliorated if victims were able to access free legal representation from an adviser who represented only the interests of the victim and who was experienced in the language and procedures of the criminal justice system. Access to ILR would also be of benefit to victims in ensuring that the agencies dealing with their cases (such as the police and CPS) were held to account in meeting the standards of support and protection required under the Victims’ Code of Practice 2013. The victim’s legal representative would be a single point of contact to offer advice to the victim and to access information on their behalf. This would prove particularly useful for those victims who wished to challenge the decisions of criminal justice agencies or utilise the Victims’ Code of Practice complaints mechanisms.

In the context of our adversarial system of justice the most controversial aspect of ILR relates to the provision of legal representation for victims during the trial process. Sam Garkawe advocates that ‘given [the] specific interest of the victim, the laws of procedural fairness seem to suggest that victims should receive consideration throughout the proceedings on the basis that they are substantially affected.’ Arguably the best way of protecting these specific interests is to provide victims with legal aid in order that they can secure their own legal representation. Not only would this allow victims to be better supported to give their best evidence in court, this would also provide victims with much more robust protection from over-zealous questioning by defence counsel than could ever be achieved under our current arrangements.

However, opponents of ILR contend that such a development would interfere with the defendant’s right to receive a fair trial, and more particularly, that the introduction of a third party to proceedings who would stand in opposition to the defendant’s position would undermine the central tenet of equity of arms which underpins our bipartisan adversarial tradition. This may be so if an ILR approach was adopted which put victims on an equal footing with the defendant, but there are clearly approaches that could be adopted that would fall short of that, allowing for the observance of the defendant’s rights while offering increased support and protection to victims. Other common law jurisdictions have been successful in doing so and there is no reason to think that this could not be similarly achieved in this jurisdiction. Indeed, as Fiona Raitt has explained:

‘Several common law jurisdictions, e.g. Ireland and Canada, have introduced specialised procedures for legal representation at specific procedural stages, or, as in the US, promote a far more robust, prosecutorial-driven case-building approach linked to more direct access by complainants to prosecutors.’

If one of these compromise approaches could be adopted in England and Wales then the adversarial nature of our system should not, in itself, constitute an insurmountable barrier preventing the provision of ILR through legal aid for crime victims. A much more real and present threat is however presented by the extensive austerity measures that were introduced to this jurisdiction in 2013 under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. In a climate where the government seek to save £220 million from the £1 billion annual criminal legal aid budget it is unlikely to prove politically and economically viable for the government to support the introduction of ILR for victims funded by the public purse.

During such challenging times it is also likely that the legal profession would be reluctant to support such a development. Where would the legal representatives for victims come from if not from the existing pool of criminal solicitors and barristers who may be understandably reluctant to become further embroiled in the uncertain and challenging legal aid market? Many of these potential advisers may also feel precluded from supporting ILR for victims at a point when many consider that the interests of defendants have been significantly and inappropriately undermined by the government’s cuts to the legal aid budget.

For more information see my full contribution to the EU funded project Improving Protection of Victims’ Rights: Access to Legal Aid which can be accessed here:  http://victimsrights.eu/