Lawyers need to do more to bridge the gaps in access to justice caused by legal aid reforms, the Law Society president told an international conference in Russia. However he stressed that pro bono work is no substitute for a properly funded legal aid system.
John Wotton, speaking at a forum attended by the justice secretary Kenneth Clarke, said the legal aid cuts in England & Wales, made in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, pose challenges in ensuring that the most vulnerable can obtain legal advice.
Wotton said the act, which removes large areas of civil law from public funding, means that lawyers will need to do more pro bono work.
‘We need to involve more stakeholders, both within the profession and outside, to find new ways of bridging the access to justice gap which has been created by the LASPO,’ he said.
Wotton said pro bono work not only provides people with the legal help they might otherwise not get, but helps develop solicitors skills, boost morale, enhance recruitment and retention, and helps firms win business from clients who expect their suppliers to support the community.
He pointed to Law Society research which indicated last year solicitors did an average of 55 hours pro bono work, which based on charge-out rate is valued at £518m - the equivalent of 2.4% of gross fee income.
‘Pro bono is an important element in the provision of access to justice, with a long and venerable tradition that benefits the public and the profession,’ he said. But he stressed that it should only be an ‘adjunct and not a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system’.
Wotton highlighted the series of debates that will be hosted by the Law Society on the theme of Protecting Access to Justice in a post-LASPO World.
They aim to bring together potential funders, voluntary organisations and lawyers to find the best and most innovative ways of ensuring that the most vulnerable members of society are not left unprotected and unrepresented.
The event in Russia provided an opportunity for representatives of the Law Society, Bar Council and UK government to press the benefits of London’s legal, arbitration and mediation services.