The Law Society has urged justice secretary Michael Gove not to rely on pro bono to plug gaps in the justice system created by legal aid cuts.
Gove said the government planned to ask the ‘very richest in the justice system to do a little bit more’ to fund the court system. The Gazette understands the lord chancellor is open to the idea of both pro bono work and financial contributions from City lawyers.
His speech also called for new initiatives to cut waste in the courts system and improve efficiency through greater use of technology and fewer in-person hearings.
The Society said it welcomes plans to improve effectiveness in the courts, but warned Gove he cannot use lawyers’ generosity to fill in for work previously covered by legal aid.
‘The legal profession is committed to pro bono and nearly half of solicitors in private practice average more than 50 hours per year,’ said Society president Andrew Caplen.
‘But pro bono is never a substitute for a properly funded system of legal aid, which needs skilled and experienced solicitors to provide expert legal advice to those who need it.’
Caplen added that denying legal aid to around 600,000 people who were previously eligible is ‘damaging our reputation’ as the best legal system in the world.
Angus McBride, partner in the criminal law team at London firm Kingsley Napley, said the legal profession must be careful not to ‘simply attack’ Gove’s plans but to explain the case against relying on corporate lawyers to do work they are not used to.
‘Asking City law firms to do pro bono work in areas in which they do not practice is not the solution,’ he said. ‘Investment will be key to any modernisation programme and efficiencies that Gove hopes to achieve.’
Jo Edwards, chair of the family law organisation Resolution, said Gove’s statement that justice should not be the preserve of the wealthy could signal a ‘change of direction’ from the new government.
But she urged caution before placing too much emphasis on the introduction of telephone and video hearings and online dispute resolution.
‘The most recent experience of a government online legal aid administration system that’s been beset by delays and the need for improvements suggests that any online solutions would need to be very carefully thought out, implemented and properly resourced.
‘People feel the impact of family court proceedings for the rest of their lives – their matters deserve proper attention and consideration.’