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