A charity supporting volunteer work by lawyers and law students is to launch a ‘virtual pro bono clinic’ via the internet, focusing on initial and one-off advice.
LawWorks will adapt the American Bar Association’s Free Legal Answers software to England and Wales to provide people who cannot afford to pay for legal advice up to four answers to legal questions a year.
The charity hopes to have its version of the US website completed by October with a pilot beginning in November.
Participating lawyers will be vetted by LawWorks and may not use the service to identify potential paid-for work. They can choose to be anonymous but must agree to follow a protocol for taking on a case pro bono.
People claiming to qualify for assistance will self-declare their income and savings status.
LawWorks’ chief executive Martin Barnes told Legal Futures: “The focus will be on initial legal advice. The areas of law for the pilot will be informed by consultation.
“The key purpose and functionality of the American website is transferable to the UK, but the context here is of course different, which is why we are consulting on its development and will be piloting and evaluating it.”
He said there had been a long tradition of pro bono advice in the UK and the new service could be viewed as “being like a virtual pro bono clinic”.
He said it was important to design the website so it did not promise more than it could deliver: “A key issue will be clearly explaining the purpose of the website and the support it can provide, so that expectations are as clear as possible.”
Mr Barnes stressed that the service did not seek to replicate the service provided by legal aid, or help from advice agencies or law centres: “The website will provide clear signposting to online sources of information and we will be piloting with services and organisations who can refer people to the website or help people to use it.
“The service will provide a new opportunity for lawyers wishing to give their time and expertise for free, but the website… should not be seen as an alternative to legal aid.”
LawWorks will be given project management and technical expertise in adapting the website to fit the UK legal environment under Big Four accountants Deloitte’s social impact initiative and has secured grant funding from the Access to Justice Foundation.
Free Legal Answers was originally developed by US firm Baker Donelson, and later adopted by the ABA. So far, 42 US states are providing or committed to providing the service.
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said: “Free Legal Answers will help people who may not be able to visit a lawyer in person to get the legal advice they need.
“It also provides flexibility that will enable more solicitors to work pro bono if they wish to, as we know many do.”