Supporting access to justice: Student pro bono awards

17 May 2017 | 4 min read

The eleventh annual LawWorks & Attorney General Student Awards were held at an event at the Houses of Common last month. Hosted by the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright MP, and sponsored by LexisNexis, the Awards celebrate the best pro bono activities undertaken by law students and law schools and the positive impact those activities have had on those who have been assisted. The awards incorporate the Access to Justice Foundation Award for an educational body or student which has made a significant contribution to promoting access to justice. The full list of winners and shortlisted candidates can be found on the LawWorks website.

James Harper, head of customer engagements at LexisNexis UK & Ireland (and one of the panel of four judges) speaking at the awards said: “LexisNexis is incredibly proud to sponsor the LawWorks & Attorney General Student Pro Bono Awards now in their 11th year. Advancing the Rule of Law is at the very foundation of LexisNexis’s global strategy, and securing access to justice for all is a critical strand of our efforts. We are honoured to support the innovative and vital pro bono work being delivered across the country and we congratulate all those nominated and shortlisted for their valuable contributions.”

We caught up with James and asked him some more about LexisNexis' involvement.

Why is pro bono work important to LexisNexis?

A: At the core of the global strategy of LexisNexis, there is a very simple ambition: to advance the Rule of Law around the world.  It is our fundamental purpose as a company.  The LexisNexis definition of the Rule of Law divides into 4 strands: the law treats all people equally; laws should be available to everyone; the law should be administered by an impartial judiciary, and everyone should have access to justice.

Pro bono is a vital tool in the effort to ensure access to justice.  As such, we work hard to support the community providing this incredibly important work, so as to enable them to work more effectively and efficiently, with better tools and content, and by doing so increasing the breadth and depth of what can be achieved.

Is there any mileage in the suggestion that pro bono work is replacing legal aid?

A: Most (if not all) reviews of unmet legal need will tell you that pro bono is, as a matter of fact, filling gaps that would previously have been catered for by legal aid – I would very much doubt that this can be in dispute.  However, there are two factors which one needs to bear in mind.

First, pro bono can only ever be another tool in the armoury – along with legal aid – to ensuring access to justice for all.  It cannot replace legal aid by any stretch: there is nowhere near enough capacity in the system for the legal need at present, let alone anything further.

Second, one should never forget that legal aid is not a panacea to access to justice challenges or unmet legal need.  Unless you could establish a zero-cost legal system (and it is fairly obvious that you cannot!), you will always need to define what is covered and what is not covered by a legal aid system.  In doing so, it is an inevitability that some people will be left behind.  This principle does not seek to minimise the impact of legal aid cuts, but instead to emphasise that importance of pro bono working hand in hand with a well-funded legal aid system to ensure access to justice is a right available to as many people as is possible.

What do you think the future holds for student pro bono and access to justice?

A: For student pro bono, I can only see a great increase in both the number and the innovative sophistication of projects.  As technology develops, smarter tools become available and these can be used to increase the scale of challenges being tackled and met.  This, coupled with increased focus in the area and, one would hope, student awareness and activism, should lead to a whole range of pro-bono activities beyond that which we have seen so far.

As for access to justice, my outlook would be less positive.  It remains one of the biggest challenges to the Rule of Law in the UK and yet appears to receive a level of attention (in the press and elsewhere) that does not match this degree of importance.  We must remember that the protection and advancement of the Rule of Law is vital for the growth of societies and business (see the LexisNexis Rule of Law Impact Tracker for proof of this!).  In these interesting economic and political times, we should ensure we are doing all we can to defend and protect access to justice for all as a fundamental right.

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