‘Developing an appreciation for pro bono work through ‘Justice in Action’ and the Open Justice Mediation Project’ by Kirsty Perry

Having relished the academic experience of my OU LLB and with the finish line in sight, I was keen to get stuck into some practical ‘lawyering’.  Justice in Action (W360) offered an array of exciting pro bono activities.  Regrettably, practicalities limited my involvement to the online environment, but the innovative course allowed for this and I selected the Open Justice Mediation Project.

I embarked on W360 with a naive view. I had no idea of the political reliance on pro bono and no foresight regarding the profession’s obligations or the diversity of work involved.

W360 requires students to build a reflective portfolio, which at first felt indulgent and unnecessarily time-consuming.  My first entry contrasted my budding legal letter-writing to model text.  My critique stated; “too academic and detail-orientated”. The educational benefit of pro bono work was rapidly illustrated; W360 provided opportunities to practise legal research and writing and, within a few weeks, I felt I was doing a better job.

My learning experience blossomed during the mediation project, delivered by professional mediators via tutorials and simulated mediation sessions. Allocation into small student “firms” made our training come alive, nurturing our ability to guide negotiated solutions to conflict.  I seized the opportunity to exchange ideas, practice techniques and enjoyed feedback from other students.  Personal reflection was so much easier to apply following dynamic group discussion and rehearsed interactions.  

In a useful tutorial, I expressed my frustration that, as nothing had “gone wrong” in our mediation to that point, I had little to reflect on.  It dawned on me, during our discussion, that reflection requires “analysis of positive mechanisms as well as negative”. For the first time in my goal-orientated, self-deprecating journey towards professional identity, the penny dropped that one should build constructively on one’s successes as well as shortcomings.  The idea could spur a new chapter in my professional development, but I realise I must now embark on its implementation!

My only disappointment in the mediation project was that it culminated in mediation with actors, not clients.  I speculated this decision was taken because “mediation involves in-depth, confidential discussion of participants’ often emotional conflicts and live communication could not be regulated by a supervising tutor in real time”. I can imagine there was a more tangible feeling of having “done good” and of representing (and belonging to) the Open Justice team during other projects available on the course.  I guess that, had I mediated for clients, I would have had the intrinsic satisfaction of making an altruistic contribution to the profession, which I now associate with pro bono work.

Pro bono work is pivotal for law students, helping us evolve from academics into practicians and sharpening our rudimentary toolkits, ready for our first forays into the profession.  For me, it has facilitated professional development, reflection and identification of intellectual stars on my chart which, as a goal-orientated, self-critical individual, I struggle to thrive without.

‘The Value of Pro Bono work and the Freedom Law Clinic’ by Lisa Nasselevitch

My understanding of the value of pro bono legal work has developed in light of my work for the Freedom Law Clinic (FLC) in relation to social justice, personal enrichment, and professional aspirations.

When I was asked last year what pro bono is and why it is important in my view, I answered that it is ‘a means to provide assistance to those in need, which is a motivation driving many students to engage with legal studies in the first place, myself included. It is also an opportunity to experience the practical realities of a solicitor/barrister to confirm that as students, we have chosen the right career path.’

My view has not fundamentally changed, but developed even further.

I have witnessed the practical impact lawyers have on their clients’ lives. Following the occurrence of a series of dreadful events, my client, who is serving a prison term, has been able to transfer to another facility, thanks to the persistence of his solicitor in the face of administrative obstacles. This has improved his mental health and alleviated the harshness of detention for him. His suicidal ideas even stopped.

Access to justice and representation is currently more essential than ever, however it is not only crucial during trial ; lawyers make a difference at every step of the way. I realised that when clients lose, lawyers continue to put their expertise to use to protect their interests. In the criminal area, ‘interests’ can, and often does, mean ‘lives.’ I value pro bono as a way to ensure that convicted defendants always have someone protecting their rights, even without the financial means.

My pro bono project  included searching for any potential fresh evidence to constitute possible grounds for appeal. At the time, I reflected in my diary that ‘It is satisfying, fulfilling, and rewarding, to use the legal knowledge I have carefully fostered the last three years to serve the purpose which drove me to enrol in a legal course, even more than I had envisaged.’

This opportunity has also shown me that the Criminal Bar, which was originally my vocation, was not tenable for me. The workload exceeded what I could manage on my own. I improved my time and energy management skills, but it was still not feasible without long hours at night. While I always managed to do my part, notably with the support of my group, I knew it would not be tenable for a lifetime, as my health condition requires me to rest sufficiently. Consequently, I undertook two mini-pupillages in other areas of practice of the Civil Bar, which fit me better.

While I had always considered pro bono as ‘a practical test for students to ensure they were on the right track with their aspirations’, I never thought it would actually affect my own aspirations. My experience at the FLC was the first step to realise I was mistakenly pursuing a career which was not for me. That is why an opportunity to get involved in pro bono is fundamental before engaging further with legal practice.

From the Selfish to the Selfless: My Changing Understanding of Pro Bono by Sam Olliffe

When I signed up for W360: Justice in Action and the pro bono activities, I was driven by selfish motives. I viewed pro bono as an easy option to gain practical experience and remedy the lack of legal work experience on my CVI chose to work at Citizen’s Advice (CAB). I thought this would be interesting, and it was. However, volunteering at CAB unexpectedly changed my whole perspective on pro bono.

Firstly, there was nothing easy about the commitment required to volunteer at CAB. It included a thirteen week intensive training period, made up of online tests, knowledge sessions, observations, and supported advising, before being assessed and signed off in role.

I had thought that it would be satisfying to help others. It was to an extent, but it was also hugely frustrating. Some of the issues that we dealt with as a service were very emotional, procedurally complex and long winded, and could not be solved in one meeting’. It became clear that the people who use CAB’s services need more help than can be given in a single session. For instance, many people attended due to removal or refusal of benefits. That money was the difference between a family financially surviving or requiring food bank vouchers so they could eat. Benefits issues are challengeable at tribunal, but not eligible for legal aid. If it wasn’t for the caseworkers acting pro bono, hundreds of people could be denied money they are legally entitled to. This situation has made me morally outraged.

The service had a legal aid contract to deliver the housing desk at court. Observing this led me to understanding that, even if a client’s case was eligible for legal aid funding, it still wasn’t enough to cover the amount of work that was done. This was a key realisation for me. I’d always thought that pro bono was a task completed completely free of charge. However, in reality, it also includes work done above and beyond the bare minimum that legal aid makes provision for. Pro bono can be the difference between winning and losing a case for a client.

My view of the value of pro bono has completely changed, thanks to the clients that I have advised at CAB. I have seen that pro bono work is not easy, or a simple process of making myself feel better. It is not about me, but about my client. I believe it is the moral responsibility of law students and lawyers to take part in pro bono activities, to uphold the rule of law, and improve equality of access to justice, otherwise many people will not be able to access the legal rights of our society they are entitled to

Pro Bono – Keeping it Fresh by Simon Langley

Former ‘Justice in Action’ student Simon Langley writes about his experiences working in the Open Justice online clinic.

When I first started the module and working in the Open Justice law clinic I had little idea of what pro bono work was. I had heard the phrase at various points in my life and during my studies, but other than stifling the snigger from my inner school boy I hadn’t really stopped to think about what it was or its importance within the legal field. I work in a field where we rely on volunteers, why hadn’t I considered the importance of volunteering in the legal field?

After completing the practice case I felt I had an idea of the sort of case we were likely to see. I hadn’t really considered the people behind each case or the emotions we would need to consider around each case. I felt prepared for our first live case by the end of the practice case, but that confidence diminished after reading through the details when they came through. This was obviously a person at the end of their tether.

During our test case I had noted that “our interview technique needs to improve and be tidied up to ensure that we get all of the information required in as streamlined a way as possible”.

After reading through the case it became obvious that this interview would need us to ensure we considered and managed the emotions of the client. This would assist with getting the facts of the case in a logical way without it all seeming too clinical. My initial thoughts on how we should work through the case hadn’t taken into account that this was a person, and while it was important we stuck to the processes and procedures set out by the clinic, we also had to take into account how we came across to the client. Prior to interviewing the client, I feel it will be very important we have a good understanding of the details that we have and ensure we are as warm and engaging as we can be to make the client comfortable.

This is something I hadn’t even considered about pro bono work. In most jobs it is easy to get into a routine and once that happens it is easy to get into lazy habits. By undertaking pro bono work and coming out of your comfort it forces you to up your game and consider how you are viewed by other people. This has to be beneficial when going back to your every day work as some of the lessons that you learn can easily be carried over and adopted within your normal working practice.

I also wasn’t expecting the type of case that we got. I had a preconception of the nice simple one dimensional legal issues that would come up, so was caught a bit off guard when the case came through. Again, in the legal field it is common to specialise in a very specific area of the law, so being forced out of your comfort zone, again, can only be a good thing to freshen up your work and ensure you become complacent.

Justice in Action: Personal Support Unit and Me by Paula Virlan

Former ‘Justice in Action’ student Paula Virlan shares some of her journal posts written when volunteering for the Personal Support Unit ( now renamed ‘Support Through Court – https://www.supportthroughcourt.org/)

In November 2018, I completed my first shadowing session with the Personal Support Unit (PSU), part of the Justice in Action module offered by the Open University. After working ten days, I can share some of the roller-coaster of experiences and how PSU is helping me grow and develop professionally.

Extract 1. 8th/02/ 2019

Today I had a rather aggressive client. He was making a small money claim. He was very angry and started shouting. I kept calm and silent – not to fuel his anger. He calmed down after I handed him the form. In retrospect I should have offered a glass of water and reassured him. In the future I plan to say “I can understand your anger no one wants to be out of pocket. I am sure that the court will deal with your issue accordingly and if you need any more help we will be here”.

Extract 2. 9th/03/2019

A client needed help with a C100 form – ‘Apply for a court order to make arrangements for a child or resolve a dispute about their upbringing’. We discussed his case and what are his ultimate goals. He asked me to fill in the form for him. He insisted I do it because I probably write better than him. I politely informed him we only do so if clients are illiterate and even then, only taking their dictation. I also explained that this was a rule of conduct of the PSU which I was not able to break.

Extract 3. 12th /03/2019

A N9 ‘acknowledgement of service’ form for rental accommodation debt needed a response. Our client’s written English was very poor. I read out loud and explained all the questions on the form. I then wrote down her answers and she thanked me multiple times. Helping her was effortless but I see how much it meant for her. I realise that support of any kind, no matter how small, can help someone cope with a difficult situation. Now, I can better appreciate how important it is that everyone, regardless of nationality or knowledge, have access to justice.

Other clients have cried, some needed to be listened to. I need to improve how I comfort them. I will acknowledge their efforts more. Encourage them to see their applications through. Remind them that the court will deal with their issue according to the law. Win or lose, their present situation will end, and they will be able to move on. excellent reflection

Different activities, such as a cake sale has got me baking for the first time. I therefore helped raise funds for the PSU. This will enable us to carry out all the important work we do across the country.

PSU helped me use, develop, and identify skills I need to refine whilst upholding the legal values and ethics that we share. These experiences helped me see the importance of access to justice for all. I will keep volunteering with the PSU. I would recommend it to any fellow student.

The Pros of Pro Bono by Catherine Martin

Former ‘Justice in Action’ student Catherine Martin writes about some of her realisations when undertaking our mediation project earlier this year.

Prior to embarking on my Open Justice mediation project, I was sceptical about lawyers’ motivations for carrying out pro bono work. I thought Pro bono lawyers fell into two categories: immigration and human rights lawyers with “a calling” and those that carried out pro bono just for career advancement. When preparing my first TMA, I wrote the following Open Justice Portfolio entry:

“Pro bono is a quid pro quo, where lawyers bail the government out of the access to justice crisis. In return, lawyers get something nice to put on their C.V.”

 Having now carried out a pro bono employment mediation for Open Justice, I can see that, to the lawyer, the value of pro bono runs deeper than just career advancement. I personally developed much greater self-awareness because of my pro bono work. As a result of practising active listening, I am now much less likely to butt in when someone else is speaking – a terrible habit I attribute to growing up in a large family!

Undoubtedly, my organisational skills have improved too. Aligning my calendar with those of my mediation partners, my employer, and my friends and family has resulted in me becoming an avid to-do-lister. I’ve seen increased productivity in my working life and even an improvement in my daily routine. Gone are the days of a lie-in.

I also had preconceptions about the remit of pro bono. Although legal aid has been removed for the majority of civil law cases, I still believed that pro bono’s real value lay in cases involving immigration and human rights, not in employment law.

Whilst helping me practise for my mediation, my mother (who is a lay judge in the Industrial Court) told me that employment tribunals used to be nicknamed “the working man’s court” as individuals would often represent themselves. However, these days, the process is much more formal, with legal submissions being called for by the judge at the end. The “working man’s court” is now inhabited by barristers. I began to see how valuable pro bono services could be in an employment situation, where a person’s livelihood was at stake.

“Increased formality of employment tribunals and the removal of legal aid means that pro bono legal services are vital to those who can’t afford representation. Particularly as the client may be worried about money due to being off work or being sacked.”

Pro bono mediation services can prevent employees from ever needing to go to an employment tribunal. Failing that, pro bono legal representation can help to even the playing field between employers and employees in an employment tribunal.

And so, I concede that I started my Open  Justice activities with misguided preconceptions surrounding pro bono. However, I can now attest that the value of pro bono lies not only in its ability to provide access to justice in a wide variety of circumstances (employment law, consumer advice, educating the public etc.,) but also, in the personal and legal development of the lawyer.

The Value of Pro Bono Work by Nicola Bradford

Former W360 ‘Justice in Action’ student Nicola Bradford writes about her experience of working on our prison project and the new insights this gave her.

Before I started the Open Justice module, I thought I knew what completing pro bono work meant. After all, television programs such as The Good Wife and Suits have portrayed pro-bono work as the ‘free legal work that no-one wants to do’ and “how we as a firm show that we care about more than just ourselves” (Suits, 2011). I knew that it wouldn’t be exactly the same, as these are fictional American programs however, I’ll admit that I naively thought that the only thing I was going to gain from this experience was the ability to put into practice some of the skills I’ve been developing over the last three years.

For my pro bono activities, I was able to visit Oakwood Prison to present to a group of peer mentors. Before the visit, our group researched and prepared a presentation on how ‘social media is fueling gang violence’. My part of the presentation was to research the topic from an American perspective. Most of my research was centralized to Chicago due to the high gang activity in this State. In some areas, I felt that the prisoners gained a lot of information. However, I felt that in some of the discussions we had with the prisoners, I learnt much more from them than I did in the two weeks prior through my own research.

I really enjoyed this visit, as we got a bit of insight into what life was like for individuals in prison. We had a short tour, which included the ‘enhanced wing’ where the prisoners who have good behaviour, such as the peer mentors, are housed. My perception of prisons has also been what is portrayed in the media. It seems silly, but I was shocked to see that the prisoners had doors rather than bars on their cells and access to games consoles.

The prisoners were also very insightful on how they think prison has affected them personally and their families and asked for us to research this topic more for the next visit. I think the visit was beneficial for both myself and the prisoners

I think I’ve learnt a lot more from this experience than I was expecting to. I now know that Pro bono work is much more than free work to promote the image of an individual or firm. It gives people access to the justice they deserve but do not have the power or means to seek themselves. Pro bono work has changed my perspective on the prison life and prisoners. Unfortunately, our group experienced issues with our activities as ( due to issues at the prison) the visits were cancelled multiple times. However, as a group I think we have been understanding of the issues and are now looking forward to the rescheduled visits at HMP Dovegate. I think this experience has given me more drive to do more pro bono work in the future as I’ve now seen the benefits it brings.

Thoughts from three months of volunteering at Citizens Advice by Daniel Doody

Final-year OU law student Daniel Doody discusses his experience of volunteering at Citizens Advice whilst studying W360: Justice in Action

When choosing the modules for this last year of my law degree, saying my eyes lit up for the pro bono work is an understatement. My personal reasoning for taking a law degree and essentially switching careers was mainly driven by the enjoyment of helping those around me. I found that I was a ‘go-to’ for advice in my circle of family and friends, with problems often relating to ‘how do I go about getting my money back for this’ or ‘can you write me a letter about ….’ . Now these may on the surface seem trivial but to ensure a positive outcome I always found it best to do some digging. This often left me looking company policies or what the law may say about a particular thing, then attempting to get knowledge to the best of my (then) abilities. One may call it a light-bulb moment.

Six years on from that moment I find myself working as a volunteer at my local citizens advice (CA), undertaking training to do what I’ve done countless times with friends and family, but in a methodical and far more professional way. It is only now in this final year and with a placement in CA that I can see the skills learnt over the past years finally coming to fruition, I shall go into some detail further in this blog in the months ahead.

What I have come to learn very quickly is that people who attend CA tend to fall into regular users of the service or they are aware of CA but don’t know what we do. It is well worth ten minutes of anyone’s time just having a look at the CA website and there you will see an encyclopedia of advice for all sorts of issues anyone may come across at anytime in their life! But it’s not just about giving people advice on common problems such as debt, benefits, housing etc. –  it’s about making them heard if they have a grievance and feel they may be listened to, it’s about supporting them when they may need the support (for example an employment tribunal), but the one thing I find it’s about is making them empowered and letting them know that regardless of the problem there’s always a solution.

Assisting clients isn’t as simple as just searching the internet and showing them what the answer is, to be a skilled advisor and giving the correct advice is about unpicking the information the client gives you and ascertaining what the problem is. A client may be seeking advice on how to change jobs, but after speaking with the client you may find out that the reason for them changing jobs is due to discrimination. Each problem isn’t always as clear cut as it seems, asking the right questions helps you understand the whole picture, pulling out the facts of the case and getting a detailed picture of the situation allows you to give the client the best options available to them. Skills learnt through my OU assignments have been really helpful! Be warned though – real life is not as clear as OU assessments when it comes to getting the facts that the client presents, a skill I am learning at a rapid pace!

So, 3 months into the service and it’s fair to say the training the CA give is extensive, but thorough, the majority being self-studied – something I am now well practiced in! There are small mini assessments at each stage so the training supervisor can check your progress, but it is all very relaxed and allows you to feel comfortable in learning at your pace and giving you a solid grounding in preparation for assisting those whom enter CA for assistance. Support is all around for every step of the process and by this stage of your studies I have found that you already have the skills in your toolbelt to look for the case facts and present some lawful advice and support the client has asked for. Mind you, the advice you offer isn’t always what they may want to hear or undertake! I’m fairly sure too, that by three months you will have the bug and be itching to help on every case you hear !!