The government is relying on the generosity of lawyers – maybe now enough is enough.
I’ve always been surprised by the amount of times I hear lawyers criticised for ‘only’ doing a certain amount of pro bono work.
As a novice to this sector when I joined the Gazette in 2011, one of the first things that struck me was the outstanding effort of this profession to offer services for free.
It is what sets solicitors apart. There are schemes run in other sectors, but there doesn’t seem to be the same will and genuine passion for pro bono work in, say, accountancy or banking. And the next time a journalist criticises a law firm for lack of pro bono, ask them when they last worked for free.
The figures clocked up by law firms are astonishing.
Take magic circle giant Freshfields, for example. In 2012/13 the firm worked on 431 matters for 253 clients, recording 43,212 pro bono hours among the 1,000 staff taking part. Other firms have similar stories to tell.
Even if it’s more about mutual back-slapping and justifying six-figure salaries than altruism, pro bono work is undoubtedly a gratifying and worthwhile thing to do.
But there is a tipping point where offering your services for free offers cost-cutting governments an easy way out of the effects of slashing legal aid.
Justice minister Simon Hughes won deserved plaudits on Thursday for trying at least to take action to solve the crisis of unrepresented litigants. Estimates put the number of these unfortunate people at 650,000 in the last year.
Hughes’ solution was to invest £1.4m (a trifling sum in relation to the savings made in the legal aid budget, but I digress) a year in, for example, LawWorks clinics.
These outlets are vital resources for hundreds of people, but they do rely on member law firms, law students and redundant solicitors, all offering their services for free.
What we risk is that the government is able to reduce its costs and responsibilities to court-users by relying on the goodwill and generosity of lawyers. Law firms are hardly likely to refuse to help, but increasingly they are unwittingly aiding and abetting the coalition – and propping up a system desperately in need of investment.
Pro bono is a laudable thing and the legal profession should be rightly proud of its commitment to helping those in need. But the danger is this service is replacing legal aid by the back door and giving the government a get-out-of-jail card. Maybe the time has come for the profession as a whole to say enough is enough.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter