Solicitors frequently bemoan the poor state of access to justice in England and Wales. Legal aid has been cut to the bone to the point where it is now non-existent for all practical purposes except in a few narrow areas of law. More and more individuals need assistance to deal with all manner of legal issues – from denial of benefits claims to immigration applications and private disputes. Charities also require expert assistance, which they can ill afford, in order to navigate the complexities of employment laws, privacy regulations and intellectual property rights. And then there are the cases where important public interests are at stake.
This makes it a challenging time for pro bono in England and Wales. The coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine not only hugely increased the need for legal advice, but also affected the operating environment for those providing assistance. They have triggered short and long-term consequences including a wide range of social and legal issues affecting people’s daily lives, as well as enormous policy interventions by governments. This is set against a backdrop of existing unmet legal need. Research from the Legal Services Board found that 3.6 million adults in England and Wales have an unmet legal need involving a dispute every year.
Unfortunately, there is little sign of improvement on the horizon. In July 2021, the House of Commons Justice Committee published a sobering report titled ‘The Future of Legal Aid’. It found an “urgent need to overhaul the current system” in respect of criminal legal aid and “a strong case for fundamental changes” to the civil legal aid system. In October 2021, the Westminster Commission Inquiry (an initiative of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid) into the sustainability of legal aid found a continued and gradual decline in access to justice, with an increasing number of people across England and Wales unable to access legal advice when they need it. Overall, it found that the service being provided to the public is not sufficient and that the legal aid profession as it stands is not sustainable.
That said, England and Wales continue to show an impressive commitment to pro bono with many firms operating thriving pro bono practices. These are underpinned by a number of networks that connect lawyers to projects – TrustLaw being a key example.
Pro bono is not and should not be a substitute for legal aid. However, it is clear that its contribution to access to justice is not only necessary but growing.
 Third Report of Session 2021–22, The Future of Legal Aid (HC 70), 27 July 2021.