Co-ordination of pro bono – creating a regional network
The legal profession has an admirable and long-held tradition of undertaking pro bono work. Pro bono work is carried out the length and breadth of the country. However, many firms engage in individual activities or the pro bono work is carried out on an ad-hoc basis. As a consequence, much of the work carried out goes unnoticed. Greater co-ordination and collaboration could maximise the impact of the pro bono work firms are prepared to do and reduce the barriers for both lawyers and members of the public in reaching each other.
The Law Society reports that 59% of solicitors have undertaken pro bono work at some point in their career. When last surveyed in 2010, around half of the solicitors responding had conducted pro bono work within the last 12 months. At the same time, universities and law schools have also increased their contribution towards pro bono work with 65% of law schools in England and Wales stating they provide some form of pro bono programme for students. We have also seen a number of collaborative projects between the higher education sector and practice with solicitors supervising students undertaking pro bono work.
A significant proportion of cases referred for pro bono assistance are referred by solicitors who are themselves unable to assist. Whilst a client may have a worthwhile case, they may not be able to afford to pay or it would not be in their interests to pay, for example due to the value of the case. In assisting these individuals or organisations on a pro bono basis, the profession makes a real difference in ensuring there is access to justice.
Engagement with pro bono activity also has significant benefits for the firm as well as for the wider community. Conducting work on a pro bono basis can help improve legal knowledge and skills thereby improving the quality of fee-earners within the firm. It can also assist in securing business as many clients take into consideration a firm’s commitment to social responsibility.
Hugh Welch, senior partner at Newcastle-based firm Muckle LLP states: ‘We have developed our community responsibility programme over the last decade and our pro bono work is an important part of it. There is considerable enthusiasm amongst our lawyers to help with pro bono matters and I am sure that the firm's work in this area assists with our recruitment programmes. As a regional law firm, I believe that our community work has enhanced our reputation and I hope that it's seen as a real contribution to the area where we all live and work.’
LawWorks is the national charity, which in partnership with the Law Society, works with solicitors and in-house teams to support, promote and encourage a commitment to pro bono across the profession. It has built a network of over 100 firms and in-house legal teams who work on a range of projects including legal advice clinics, email advice and casework for individuals and not-for-profit groups. LawWorks assists the firms by providing a brokerage service ensuring the provision of appropriate pro bono work as well as facilitating a joined-up and supportive approach.
LawWorks has member firms all over England and Wales and with the remit to meet need arising anywhere in the country. However, the concentration of the legal profession in the south-east means that co-ordination of pro bono activity is disproportionately focused in that area. LawWorks will use its best efforts to meet legal need where it arises, with a preference for linking lawyers to the vulnerable within their own communities. Currently, however, the situation can result in cases being placed at a considerable distance from the location of the applicant.
In the absence of a national network of LawWorks’ offices, there has been difficulty in co-ordinating pro bono within the regions. As the legal profession considers the legislative, economic and regulatory changes of recent months and years, the pro bono sector is working to maximise the impact of resources available and this has led LawWorks to consider the establishment of a more co-ordinated approach to pro bono across the country.
In addressing this problem, LawWorks, in conjunction with Northumbria University, established the North East Pro Bono Hub in November 2011. This pilot scheme aimed to create a regional presence to facilitate and co-ordinate pro bono activity in the north-east. The hub will achieve this aim by building a network of legal service stakeholders willing to provide pro bono assistance.
Northumbria University’s Law School is able to utilise its existing expertise and experience, having built up a pro bono service through its Student Law Office which handles over 300 cases per year. Northumbria University acts as a local co-ordinator drawing upon its knowledge of the local area and providing a point of contact in the region. The University can network with local firms, thus assisting to increase the membership of LawWorks. The University can also work with local charities and community groups to target areas of unmet need within the local community. LawWorks continues to provide the brokerage and consultancy support for the member firms providing access to their suite of projects.
The North East Pro Bono Hub seeks to achieve a harmonised approach to pro bono within the region with members working together to benefit the local community. Member firms will benefit from the support of LawWorks and the University thus saving their resources in the administration of pro bono projects. At the same time, the hub can promote projects within the community raising the profile of the pro bono work undertaken by the local profession and allowing individuals and community groups to access the assistance they require.
Hugh Welch supports the creation of regional networks, stating: ‘The creation of a true regional network of firms willing to handle pro bono work would be a great development. It would be a great resource for this region and, equally importantly, a network of firms acting together could achieve so much more than those same firms simply working in isolation from each other.’
In less than a year, the North East Pro Bono Hub has helped to establish four legal advice clinics in the north of England enabling members of the public to access free legal advice. In particular, the North East Pro Bono Hub worked together with Newcastle-based deaf-led charity, Becoming Visible, to establish a legal clinic for the deaf community who have faced significant problems in accessing legal advice. In providing a regional point of contact, the hub has also assisted in the referral of pro bono casework amongst members ensuring that pro bono clients continue to receive the representation they need. As such, if any members are unable to provide assistance, they can actively refer cases through the hub and therefore ensure worthwhile cases are not lost in the system.
Following the success of the North East Pro Bono Hub, LawWorks plans to roll out the model with hubs already in the very early planning stages for Manchester, Yorkshire and Bristol. It is intended that the hubs will follow the same model but each will have their own unique regional identity building a strong sustainable pro bono network throughout the country.
Whilst LawWorks charges an annual membership fee (which varies depending upon the size of the firm), any firm joining a regional hub in the pilot period will gain free membership for the first year. The benefits of LawWorks membership include access to their training, consultancy and brokerage services. LawWorks also assists in raising the profile of member firms through its newsletter, website and annual awards. In providing the administrative support, LawWorks and the regional hubs can increase the impact of pro bono work by allowing the member firms to deliver the advice that is needed.
It is anticipated that the need for pro bono advice will be greater than ever following the reforms to legal aid which take effect in April 2013. Whilst it is recognised that pro bono is not, and should not be a replacement for a properly funded public legal system, the profession should not ignore the gaps in access to justice in the communities they serve.
If you are interested in becoming a member of the North East Pro Bono Hub, or in supporting any other of the planned hubs in any capacity, please contact Rebecca Hilsenrath at firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul McKeown is senior lecturer at Northumbria Law School and co-ordinator of the North East Pro Bono Hub