Much of the work that we do now will continue to be pro bono. But, as an ABS, we can also offer additional services, such as to entrepreneurs, start-ups and small businesses, for a fee but at below market rates.
Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre is a program of the Nottingham Law School. It offers free legal advice and assistance in the areas of: employment, business law, housing, property and environmental law, debt and welfare rights and tribunal and court representation. The services are offered through students of the Law School, who work under the supervision of qualified solicitors. The Centre received an ABS license in October, 2015.
The Legal Advice Centre was founded in 2006. Our new status as an ABS has permitted us to establish a legal status separate from the university.
The Centre serves both individuals and businesses. About 50% of the work we do is in employment. We also do a lot of work in housing, as well as property and environmental law. The other areas we cover are welfare, debt, contracts, and some intellectual property. All of these services are provided pro bono (free of charge).
Our principal purpose is to provide experience for our students. Of course an additional purpose is to help the community.
Before we obtained ABS status, we could not perform or charge for any of the six reserved activities, which meant that our services with respect to litigation were limited to employment and social security tribunals. With our newly acquired ABS status, we can do more types of litigation.
We are funded through the university, as a university program and as a service to the students. We are a popular program — about 200 students, or 10% of the student population, worked with us this school year. Increasingly we are incorporated into the academic program so they can gain academic credit.
In the past year, we’ve handled about 170 cases. Most of those are cases that can be resolved relatively quickly — on a student schedule — but some, such as miscarriage of justice cases, take a few years to resolve.
Our clients come from a variety of sources — from our website, from referrals from local volunteer agencies. Some of our clients are students and members of the university staff. Most of our clients are local to Nottinghamshire County, but some come from other places in the country. We find that the unmet need for legal services is so high we do not have to do much for clients to find us.
There are certain areas of the law we don’t cover. For example, outside of our miscarriage of justice cases, we do not do criminal law work. This is for two reasons: criminal law is still eligible for legal aid, and the timelines on criminal cases make it difficult to get students involved.
We don’t do immigration either because a special qualification is required for that work. It’s an area we would like to get into if we are able to get the funding and the expertise.
We don’t offer a walk-in service because logistically, with student schedules and on university property, it would be difficult to manage. We do offer an outreach service at community centres, where people can come in to talk to us about their cases. We try to provide some preliminary advice on the spot and then follow up with them later by phone or in-person appointments.
We’ve set up a charitable subsidiary of the university, and that is the body that has received the ABS license.
Our initial reason for looking at applying for an ABS license was because there had been an imminent possibility of changes to the law that would have significantly restricted the permitted activities of charitable operations like ours, unless we established ourselves as either a law firm or an ABS. That possibility is no longer imminent, but the possibility does remain. We want to be prepared.
But that was only our preliminary reason. As we thought about it, we realized that the ABS structure offered us a number of additional advantages:
To begin, we realized that it would permit us to offer a wider range of services, and be able to charge for some of them.
The Centre is an expensive facility for the law school to run. Much of the work that we do now will continue to be pro bono. But, as an ABS, we can also offer additional services, such as to entrepreneurs, start-ups and small businesses, for a fee but at below market rates. These types of clients don’t have the funds to pay full market rates for legal services, but they are able to pay something. We see a huge unmet need in this area — we want to fill the gap. In addition, many of our students are studying and intend to practice commercial law — this will give them practical experience in that area, and with that an advantage over other students.
In this manner, the fee-paying work subsidizes the pro bono work. Of course, as a charitable body, we could not distribute profits anyway, not even to the university. A number of volunteer sector organizations outside of law schools are doing the same thing — offering some services for below market rates in order to subsidize other, free services.
A second advantage that the ABS structure offers is to improve our relationship with the university: The relationship will be more defined, we will have more control and independence in how we operate, and we will have a board that will have direct access to the upper management of the university.
A third advantage is that, as an ABS, we believe we’ll have more flexibility in how we work with third parties, and notably with external legal providers. It will be easier for work to be referred to us and that will lead to an expansion in the services we offer. Also, universities are large organizations and negotiating deals can be a slow process — as a smaller organization we’ll be more nimble — we’ll be able to act more quickly.
We can understand the general concern regarding the ethical issues that are raised by ABSs. In a different situation, we ourselves might be more cautious of them. In our specific case, we think that the ABS structure defines us better. It gives us clarity and focus in our role. We don’t think that the ethical issues raised in relation to ABSs apply in our case because our funder understands the business.
As a university, we have had subsidiaries before, for example a cancer research center, and a conference center, each of which are separate entities. When a university wants to do something that is different from the usual activities of a university, it is better to set up a separate structure rather than trying to muddle through with the university’s larger structure, trying to do things that a university doesn’t do. It delineates the activities and gives them commercial freedom — both are very useful. In this context, the ABS structure fits us very well.
The Centre is all about access to justice. The legal profession resists changes that offer the possibility to improve access to justice. It resists the unbundling of legal services. It resists outside investment that might reduce the cost of providing legal services. We need more entrepreneurial models in legal services — entrepreneurial models that take advantage of the huge opportunities that technology offers.
The Centre is small. As we mentioned, last year we handled about 170 cases. Some legal aid centers handle several thousand cases in a year — it will take us a long time to get up to that number. We can’t be a substitute for a comprehensive publicly funded legal service — which we no longer have in this country anyway. The Centre cannot singlehandedly make a significant improvement in the access to justice problem in the UK — we cannot plug the hole. On the other hand, we can reduce the flow — that is, we can reduce the problem.
Another thing that we do is give our students an education in access to justice – we help them to understand the difficulties in providing access to justice, and how lawyers fit into that picture. The Centre provides access to justice through student training, through looking at the culture of legal services and how doing good fits into it.
There is one way in which, with an ABS structure, we may be able to significantly alter the legal landscape: We can become a research establishment, experimenting with different ways of providing legal services. Like other university departments that research developments in science, we can research and develop new methods of delivering legal services and access to justice that could be exploited commercially later on. Universities do that — they develop things, and the good ideas are used by the rest of society, and help people in that way. For example, what about a short module on how to conduct your own litigation, that is available to people for a fee, like car mechanics classes? Why not experiment with ideas like that?
At the time the UK Legal Services Act was adopted in 2007, we knew that we couldn’t go on as we were. It is clear that the traditional model was not doing a good job of providing access to justice.
The ABS structure offers a way of addressing the deficiencies in the legal services market — a way to fill the gap in the unmet need for legal services. ABSs present dangers, we understand that. But today we have a population that has a high standard of literacy and ability to understand complex concepts — compared, for example, to 1949 when the UK’s legal aid system was first put in place.
Further, our regulations in the UK offer a means to address the risks that ABSs present. For example, the role of the COLP (Compliance Officer for Legal Practice) is crucial. It needs to be someone sufficiently senior to be able to point out and rectify problems. It is also important that the regulator have the expertise and resources to be able to react quickly and appropriately. In the UK, the SRA does a job that is very different from the job it inherited from the Law Society. It has taken the SRA some time to learn and grow into its new role.
We are in early stages, and we are learning.
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