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Kushal Sood reflects on the importance of Pro-Bono work

I am the module lead for the prison clinic. This module is the brainchild of Chris Riley who remains one of the tutors I work with. In its nascent stages it has served the purpose of providing people in prison with access to advice that they cannot obtain because, for example, of legal aid cuts.  The work I do as a solicitor is complemented by my teaching – I teach students the theoretical underpinnings of prison law, and involve them in casework thereafter, assisting people in prisons with problems ranging from increasing their access to family contact, to having social care needs recognised and addressed.  Discrimination is a key feature of much of our work.  My background in private practice entailed in-depth analysis of algorithmic injustice, which – unsurprisingly to those well-read on the subject – impacts marginalised communities, with very little hope for improvement.

The very fact that we are able to provide early advice to clients on these issues, at SHU Law, makes the work we do very important.  People in prison would otherwise spend their sentences being mistreated, without necessarily knowing why, and without knowing what their options are to try and mitigate the distress this causes.

We are now a decade into the latest era of legal aid cuts, which has – as predicted at an early stage – decimated the profession.  In my own area, prison law, the number of legal aid practitioners remaining continues to decline sharply.  The pressures created by fixed fee schemes ensure that practitioners cannot comprehensively advise their clients.  Their work is siloed. In the immediate sense, the availability of alternative sources of advice becomes vital.

Who, however, is to provide that advice? SHU Law is innovative in that it combines teaching, study and practice.  This allows for specialists like me to advise without being unpaid.  It is important to distinguish this work from pro bono advice. To our clients the difference will be largely immaterial.  They will ask:  Am I paying for this advice, or will the LAA try to charge me later, or not?

For me, however, there is a major difference between the pro bono work I did in private practice (which I would do completely unpaid, and would be forced to do under duress, in order to support those in need) and the work I do at SHU Law.  SHU Law has provided me with an opportunity to develop my longstanding specialism, without the debilitating, often sadistic bureaucracies of the legal aid regime I had worked under for 16 years.  As a person of colour, this freedom to develop intellectually, and provide respite for my clients in often hopeless situations, lies in stark contrast to the limited opportunities there have historically been for people like me in private practice.

It follows that my role is potentially an exciting one, and SHU Law is itself an exciting place to be.  Even the European Court of Human Rights, however, has held that people are afforded fair trials where counsel steps in on a pro bono basis.  We need to disabuse those around us of that notion, which does great harm to those for whom access to justice remains out of reach.  Those in universities providing advice have a duty to ensure the future of the profession, rather than capitalising on its present state.

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