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The best things in life are free?

Rachel Innes

Rachel Innes shares how her understanding of the value of pro bono legal work has developed in light of her participation in the Open Justice activities of the past year.  

Participating in the Open Justice Law Clinic (OJLC) helped develop my understanding of the value of pro bono work. I understood pro bono work is free legal help to those without financial means, but by participating, I developed an understanding of the ‘value’ of pro bono work, something I did not appreciate before. This development was two-fold. I assumed access to justice meant pro bono would be a fix-all solution. I did not consider the meaning of the word ‘access’ and how this relates to the value of pro bono work.

A client approached the OJLC for advice to recover a considerable amount of money. I asked what the client’s best outcome would be. Extract 1: ‘To my surprise the client said, “to see the people concerned held accountable for their actions, so they cannot do it to anyone else”. Justice for this client appeared to be not by financial rectification but through accountability.’

I questioned what justice meant. The Roman Emperor Justinian defined justice as the will, to give each person their due. Linking this to the theory of social justice inspired by John Rawls, social justice supports the idea of equal rights of citizenship and social benefits distributed on a need basis. Relating this to the OJLC, pro bono does not necessarily lead to a favourable outcome for every client, but the value of pro bono is in providing an equal opportunity to those who would otherwise be excluded. I realise that social justice in this context is about access to justice, not necessarily achieving it. Looking forwards, my understanding of the value of pro bono work has developed to allow me to focus on the provision of legal help, not the outcome of it (D. Miller, 2013, pp.77- 88).

Secondly, working in the OJLC placed the value of pro bono work in the context of practical work experience. Extract 2: ‘I saw the injustice in the unequal bargaining power an employer can have over an employee, it just seems wrong.’

Herring 2014 argues that law and ethics are entwined. If law is breached, usually individuals have not acted in an ethical manner. Herring 2014 also points out, harder cases are those when it is unclear which rules apply, these cases require knowledge of the principles behind the rules (Herring, 2014, p.2).

Our team overlooked a point of law through lack of experience. We agreed the case facts pointed to unethical and illegal behaviour but were unsure how to prove it. The complexities were challenging, so we sought advice from our tutor. After presenting our draft letter of advice to our supervising solicitor, she also sought clarification from a specialist solicitor. Linking this to legal ethics, Herring 2014 argues there are extra obligations placed on lawyers who hold positions of trust with clients. If there is no access to legal assistance to enforce rights, the rule of law would break down (Herring 2014, p. 3).

I can see the importance of providing a competent service, ensuring clients receive the best possible advice, which upholds the legal and ethical standards demanded from lawyers. This understanding overcame my fear of judgment, replacing it with a desire to act in the best interests of the client.  I now ask for comment even if I think I am right. I also learned, feeling passionate to fight inequality is a brilliant motivation, but legal disputes are won through sound legal knowledge and due diligence. These learning experiences made possible by the OJLC, developed my understanding of the value of pro-bono work, for clients and participants. Sometimes, the best things in life are free!

Herring, J. (2014) Legal Ethics, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Innes, R. (2021) ‘Extract 1’ Originally written April 1st, 2021.

Innes, R. (2021) ‘Extract 2’ Originally written April 10th, 2021.

Miller, D. (2013) ‘Justice’ in Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2003; Very Short Introductions online, Sept. 2013) [Online]. Available at (First Accessed October 28th, 2020).

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