ACCORDING to the Access to Justice Foundation, a charity whose aim is to help the most vulnerable in society access legal services, “receiving legal help makes an enormous difference to people’s lives, helping to reduce debt, poverty and suffering”.

Yet with legal aid budgets being cut over a prolonged period of time while funding for charities that offer pro-bono services is becoming ever-more scarce, receiving that help can be easier said than done.

Which is why several hundred legal professionals took to the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow on Monday night to raise money for the many free legal advice services that run across Scotland.

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For Rebecca Samaras, director of the Edinburgh Centre for Professional Legal Studies at Edinburgh Law School, who led the Edinburgh walk alongside Court of Session judge Lord Tyre, the money raised at such an event will never be enough to plug the funding gap.

But, she said, it can go some way towards raising awareness of just how wide the chasm is between those who can afford to access justice and those who cannot.

“I used to be in private practice and I did a lot of legal aid work - at that point we had a lot of people who didn’t have the cash to be going through large litigations “ Ms Samaras said.

“It was really apparent 15 years ago when the free legal advice clinic at Edinburgh Law School started that there were a hell of a lot of people out there who just weren’t getting the help they needed, whether because they didn’t know how to vocalise it or there weren’t enough solicitors around who could help out.

“There are fewer solicitors now who do legal aid because of the cuts and it will just get worse. There’s an access to justice issue here - if we can afford to pay for legal advice we can go for it and if we can’t afford it we can’t.

“I’m not saying a legal walk will fill the hole, but it does raise awareness and gets people meeting each other to see if there’s anything we can do to help.”

There appears to be no shortage of people willing to help, with Ms Samaras pointing out that most of the major law firms are involved in pro-bono work to some degree while all the law schools run free law clinics that help people navigate what to most can be daunting legal processes.

While these organisations are increasingly filling the gap left by the reduction in legal aid, though, they too are facing crises in funding. They may be staffed by volunteers, with many senior members of the profession as well as students giving up their time to assist, but even the leanest of operations runs up expenses that need to be met from somewhere.

“A lot of these smaller players are run by two or three people and have lots of volunteers who have a lot of energy but they don’t have the funding to keep going,” Ms Samaras said.

“The one I worked for folded purely because when it came to a funding round everyone tendered for the same piece of funding and it was unsuccessful.

“We were doing tribunal work going all round Scotland and you can’t do that if you don’t have the resources.”

Some of the work being done by law clinics is the low-level sorting out of issues that law firms simply do not have time to handle.

“They come in with lots of paper and it could be that all they need is for someone to go through the papers and put them in order. You can then refer them back to a solicitor,” Ms Samaras said.

However, law clinics can also handle more substantial issues relating to everything from family and employment law to landlord disputes and wills, and, said Ms Samaras, can “go as far as the court door”.

However, like the law firms that are having to turn away clients because of the cuts to legal aid, free legal advice services are having capacity issues of their own.

“Talk to any one of the clinics and law centres about the many people who are contacting them and they’ll say they just don’t have the resources to deal with them,” Ms Samaras said.

“We have to turn away more clients than we can take on.”

Put in that context, it is clear that the money raised by a few hundred people taking an evening walk through Scotland’s two main cities will only ever be a drop in the ocean when it comes to ensuring those that cannot afford to pay for legal advice are still able to access some kind of help.

With Ms Samaras predicting that the issues “are just going to escalate”, though, if it encourages even just a few more solicitors to embrace pro-bono work it will be viewed as a success.