Stemming from pro bono publico, ‘for the public good’, pro bono work involves lawyers and law students volunteering time to help people who need it. This could be because they cannot afford legal assistance, because they need support navigating the legal system, or simply because they have little awareness of the law.
From helping victims of domestic abuse write witness statements to guiding a litigant-in-person around a court building, and representing clients in tribunals yourself to drafting responses to government consultations, there are more pro bono opportunities than you can shake a stick at.
Non-legally trained individuals find it incredibly difficult to grapple with the ins and outs of the UK legal system. These difficulties are exacerbated for the poor or otherwise disadvantaged who find it harder to secure legal advice, let alone good legal advice.
At the same time, recent cuts to legal aid and the continuing effects of austerity have made it increasingly difficult for not-for-profit agencies and legal services providers to help. Strapped for cash, and facing a never-ending queue of potential clients, they are often forced to turn away those with valid questions or meritorious cases.
Justice and a fair hearing are becoming increasingly inaccessible, while the rule of law is being undermined by financial and logistical hurdles.
Thankfully, you can help. And its also beneficial to you!
All firms and chambers value practical legal experience away from the library and lecture hall. Not only does it demonstrate your enthusiasm for the law, it can also improve your real-world legal abilities.
Pro bono work will hone a variety different skills, from leading policy campaigns to oral advocacy and public speaking. After all, being a good lawyer is a whole lot more than dissecting statutes and writing essays. Pro bono work is the best way to put what you learn at university into practice, and it can also help you figure out what area of law you want to practice in.
To summarise: every law student should do pro bono work!
Any even vaguely law-focused activity under the sun seems to have a pro bono organisation or charity stepping in and making a difference. There are hundreds of organisations in the UK that need volunteers with legal skills. Some have certain requirements, for example volunteers must be a LPC/BPTC student, or must be DBS qualified. Many, if not most, do not. Read on to find out some organisations operating out of London.
Amicus is a non-profit which helps secure equal access to justice for those facing the death penalty in the USA. It provides prisoners with legal representation and raises awareness of potential abuses of defendants’ rights. It offers volunteering internships for law student and lawyers beginning their careers. Some interns operate out of the London office, researching cases, drafting paperwork, and liaising with USA-based lawyers.
This is one of the most visible and high-impact opportunities. Interns, especially those placed in the USA, are directly involved with presenting capital cases to courts, communicating with prisoners behind bars, and dealing with appeals post-conviction.
A part of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, the Bingham Centre takes on a wide variety of different projects concerning Rule of Law issues in the UK and internationally. Its primary focus is on research, while its stated aim is to campaign for the maintenance, development and promotion of the rule of law.
The Bingham Centre regularly offers opportunities for volunteer interns to assist in its research, events and related activities. Internships are generally offered on a part time basis, cycling every three months. The selection process emphasizes academic credentials and an interest in rule of law issues, while the majority of the work focuses on research activities such as drafting submissions, preparing material for meetings, and reviewing papers.
The BPBU provides free legal assistance to those who cannot obtain public funding. They match members of the public who need help with qualified barristers who donate their time and expertise to deserving cases.
Volunteer admin roles within the office on Chancery Lane are competitive and highly sought after. Volunteers donate a day a week for three months at a time. Openings are advertised on the website, usually towards the start of every quarter.
Battersea Legal Advice Centre is an evening law clinic that runs Monday – Thursday every week. The clinic offers one-off legal advice but not representation. It covers a variety of law from private housing (for tenants), employment (for employees), small claims, consumer, and general litigation.
Like all legal advice centres and clinics, volunteers with a grasp of the law are welcomed with open arms. You’ll likely find yourself providing logistical support, which could involve anything from making tea for people in the queue to discussing the merits of a case with one of the lawyers present.
Based in the heart of London’s West End, this is a law centre for residents of the Greater London Area. The centre provides free legal advice in housing, immigration and debt law. The centre has three full-time and two part-time members of staff, but volunteers are crucial to man their busy phone lines. Aside from answering telephones, volunteers could also find themselves dealing with clients as they come through the door and keeping the centre’s library and information details up to date.
Citizens Advice (previously Citizens Advice Bureau) is a national network that provides free, confidential and independent advice to help people overcome their problems. Citizens Advice recruits volunteers for a huge number of different roles, from giving advice, to managing front-of-house, to helping members of the public use the wide variety of digital and information tools available to them.
Of possibly more interest to law students, CA also places volunteers with a degree of legal training in courts across the country to provide practical and emotional support to witnesses. Witness Service Volunteers can also be involved explaining court procedures and practices, taking witnesses along to see a court, or referring witnesses to other support services.
The most wide-spread of all the opportunities on this page, this is an excellent first stop for pro bono novices that covers a large number of different opportunities.
The Death Penalty Project is a wide ranging organisation that works wherever the death penalty is imposed. Their focus is to promote and protect the human rights of those facing the death penalty. The project provides free legal representation to individuals facing the death penalty, works to restrict the death penalty in line with international legal requirements, upholds and develops human rights standards, and promotes awareness and dialogue. Their actions are typically concentrated in countries which retain the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London as their final court of appeal.
The project offers a number of formal internships in partnership with a variety of universities, but also offers one-week placements in their London office during the summer holidays. Interns are involved in casework, research and administration. While only for a short duration, the experience of working at the heart of a pioneering legal NGO with some notable successes under its belt is not to be missed.
The Free Representation Unit (FRU) provides legal representation in social security and employment tribunals. As a law student, you could take a case to tribunal (and potentially to appeal), representing someone who is not eligible for legal aid and cannot afford a lawyer.
FRU is one of the few organisations to where you can display your oral advocacy in front of a proper tribunal hearing, so it’s well worth the serious time commitment it expects from its volunteers (both in terms of training days and case preparation).
The Howard League campaigns for reform to reduce prison numbers and crime statistics. Its projects encompass a whole range of related activities, from transforming prisons, to protecting the legal rights of young people in custody, to improving policing focused on children. The Howard League strongly believes that prison in its current form simply does not work, and that a doubling in the number of people behind bars since 1990 is indicative of a system struggling to survive.
Volunteering is often focused on their frontline legal work. Opportunities typically involve giving one to three days a week and could involve conducting case research, drafting responses to members of the public and prisoners, and supporting legal caseworkers or senior solicitors.
HRW is a non-profit human rights organisation with bases around the globe. It focuses primarily on accurate fact-finding, impartial reporting, and targeted advocacy in order to campaign for human rights worldwide. HRW is possibly the most pre-eminent and respected human rights lobbying organisation in the world and meets regularly with groups such as the United Nations, African Union, European Union, financial institutions, corporations, and national governments.
IPSEA (Independent Parental Special Education Advice) offers free legal advice and support for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Many of these children have been excluded from school and face spending the rest of their education at a Pupil Referral Unit. IPSEA provides extensive information about possible next steps for parents and supports them in any resulting appeals against the exclusion order.
Volunteers typically take on one of three roles: an advice line volunteer, a tribunal support service volunteers, and an admin volunteer. Work can include a variety of different activities, from providing legally based information and support to parents to accompanying parents to tribunals.
Just for Kids Law provides advocacy, support and assistance to young people in difficulty, whether these are in care, in trouble with the law, or at risk from exclusion from school. It also campaigns actively for children’s rights within the youth justice system. Volunteering roles include legal caseworkers, youth advocates and mentors.
A focused organisation with a clear mission and inspiring success stories, pro bono work here is a must for anyone who wants to see the impact of front-line law on people’s lives.
JUSTICE is an all-party law reform and human rights organisation, working to strengthen the UK justice system. They propose evidence-based analysis and practical solutions to law-makers, compare the UK legal processes to international best practice, and utilise the wider expertise of their membership to understand the wider challenges facing the UK justice system.
As a small charity, volunteer places are limited. Volunteers that do get taken on, usually for an academic year, provide administrative support to the London office. While not providing legal advice, volunteers generally treated as crucial members of the team (in part due to their long-term commitment to the project) and get to assess and critique the problems at the heart of the UK legal system.
One of the most famous and widely-known advocacy groups within the UK, Liberty is a politically impartial organisation that campaigns for fundamental rights and freedoms nationally. Its underlying philosophy grounds the values of human dignity, individual treatment and fairness as the foundations of a democratic society. Their strategies broadly fall under the headings of public campaigning, test case litigation, parliamentary policy analysis and providing free advice and information.
Volunteer opportunities are recruited for on a rolling basis throughout the year, with a variety of positions typically on offer.
The London Legal Support Trust is an independent charity that raises funds for free legal advice services in London and the South East. In addition to funding their offer their knowledge, contacts and experience of the sector to help agencies become more sustainable.
The LLST looks for ad hoc event volunteers throughout the year to help with everything from setting up fundraising events and selling tickets to cheering on event participants. Volunteers are also sought on a regular basis to help with short-term office tasks.
The MRC works to help migrants, refugees and asylum seekers participate in British society. It works to regularise people’s immigration status, learn English, and find work. They are particularly proud of the help they have offered to people who are stateless. Many of their workers and volunteers stem from the migrant community, and have at points been clients and service users themselves.
Volunteers can expect to develop an in-depth knowledge of the problems facing the migrant community in the UK, especially since the Brexit referendum, and will also gain front-line experience of the complexities and nuances of immigration and asylum law.
The NAAN is a charity that supports appropriate adults in the justice system. Appropriate adults are individuals who support children and vulnerable adults suspected of an offence as they work through the legal process.
Volunteers can train to become an appropriate adult. While the NAAN does not recruit volunteers directly, it will direct you to a scheme local to you. This is quite possibly one of the most rewarding pro bono opportunities available on this page, allowing you to see the criminal justice system from the inside.
The NCDV provides a free, fast emergency injunction service to survivors of domestic violence. It allows such victims to apply for an injunction, sometimes within 24 hours of initial contact. It further seeks to provide a one-stop-shop where the concerns of those in an abusive situation can be addressed in their language and on their terms.
A drop-in clinic providing free legal advice and representation to the people of Paddington. This centre covers debt, employment, housing and welfare benefits law. While information online is sparse, it is likely that, similar to other law centres, it would generally welcome any volunteers with open arms and provide opportunities for pro bono work.
The Personal Support Unit trains volunteers with legal skills to provide practical and emotional support for litigants-in-person within the court system. Units are to be found in a variety of London courts, from Barnet County Court to the RCJ. Legend has it that the interview includes swerve-ball questions such as: “What would you do If a potential litigant-in-person came in to complain about the little green men hiding in their water-tank?” Empathy, patience, and communication skills are the order of the day here – you are a guide to the UK’s legal system but cannot provide any legal advice yourself.
Volunteers also get a unique view into the behind-the-scenes operating of the court system, as well as an insight into the lives of the thousands of people who face the legal system with no training or representation.
The PAS is an independent registered charity which offers free legal advice and support to prisoners in England and Wales. It does this through its phone advice line, letters clinic, and legal outreach sessions, regularly pursuing prisoners’’ complaints about their treatment in prison via legal routes.
PAS, like most of the organisation on this page, is always in need of keen volunteers. Legal volunteer duties include sending general information to clients and other prisoners, writing to clients, and responding to general letters from prisoners. Volunteers are expected to commit to one day a week for at least three months.
PI is a London-based charity that investigates the secret world of government surveillance and exposes the private companies enabling it. It litigates to ensure surveillance is within the confines of the law, advocates for strong legal frameworks to protect privacy, conducts its own research to enable policy change, and raise awareness about technologies and the law.
Volunteers are treated as full members of the team and play a crucial role in campaigns, litigation, research and advocacy projects. Volunteers are taken on a three-month rolling basis, and are expected to commit at least three days a week to the role (though this is flexible).
RC is one of the leading charities in the UK working directly with refugees and supporting them to rebuild their lives. It runs a well-established Advocacy Network directly linking other organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK with the RC’s Advocacy Team. RC focuses its work into five main areas: asylum, financial stability, health and wellbeing, access to settled housing, and access to training/employment.
Volunteers are sought for an astonishingly wide range of activities, from interpreters to legal support staff to maths teachers. RC operates out of a number of London locations, including Barnsley, Croydon and Stratford.
Reprieve is an organisation committed to defending human rights, providing free legal and investigative support to people facing execution, rendition, torture, extra-judicial imprisonment and extra-judicial killing. Founded by the prominent human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, they fight for their clients’ cases in courts around the world, currently working on behalf of over 100 people facing the death penalty in 17 countries.
Volunteers in Reprieve’s London office are deeply involved in all aspects of the organisation’s work, from managing client case files, investigating potential future cases, answering phones, dealing with post, updating the database, working on press comms, or developing the website.
One of the biggest law centres in London, this clinic specialises in cases of homelessness, possession, eviction, disrepair and asylum support law for people living within the borough of Southwark and neighbouring boroughs. They generally take referrals from Citizens Advice (see above) rather than providing a drop in service or providing general information for the public.
Volunteers are always welcome and form the backbone of the organisation. Administrative volunteers cover anything and everything, including taking part in the legal side of the work and attending court/tribunals, clerk hearings and client interviews.
Toynbee Hall contains one of the oldest and most famous legal advice centres in the country, offering law students the chance to to do pro bono work (though not advocacy opportunities) in the fight against poverty.
Roles typically include providing an initial assessment of a client’s legal needs, researching areas of the law that crop up most often within Toynbee’s work (often Employment Rights, Housing and Consumer Debt, and Immigration Advice), or providing administrative support to their team of pro bono lawyers.
VS is an independent charity that provides people affected by crime or a traumatic event get the support they need and the respect their deserve. It is particularly active in helping victims of domestic abuse and young victims of crime.
VS is always in need of new volunteers to join its local teams and provide an exhaustive list of different opportunities on their website. Flexibility is the name of the game, with opportunities starting from just two hours a week. Volunteers are typically involved with meeting victims of crime, either at their home or over the phone, explaining the role of Victim Support and providing emotional and practical support to those who need it most.
This is a just a small selection of organisations that look for legal volunteers. There are plenty more!
Words: Oliver Jackson
Loading More Content