The legal professions have a proud history of giving their time and expertise for free – National Pro Bono Week (6-11 November) is an opportunity to encourage, showcase and celebrate the contribution that pro bono makes to enabling access to justice. There is much to applaud and celebrate.
But pro bono does not exist in a vacuum. The model of initial legal advice in a clinic setting has been challenged by the cuts to legal aid, with fewer free or affordable routes for onward referral. While it has become a mantra that pro bono should not be become a substitute for legal aid, neither should it be a substitute for funding for advice agencies and law centres. For pro bono to thrive it needs a supporting infrastructure, which some third sector organisations are well placed to provide.
LawWorks is passionate about the importance and contribution of pro bono, but we need to be open about the challenges, differences of view about its form, and its inherent limitations. Faced with a perfect storm of legal aid cuts (a ‘cliff-drop’ in early advice availability following LASPO in 2013), court fees and law centre closures, the reality is pro bono can only shelter so many.
The profession is not homogenous, and is changing. While sharing the title of ‘solicitor’, a sole practitioner, legal aid or ‘high street’ firm will feel a world away from those in a City or international firm. An increasing proportion of the profession also works in-house, and alternative business structures and new legal technologies are slowly increasing market share. Pro bono in turn needs to be able to work in a diverse and complex legal landscape. No one size or model fits all.
Much unpaid legal work goes unrecognised (for example the legal aid lawyer going above and beyond what is remunerated) but – consistent with the ethos of pro bono as voluntary – more can be done by the profession. Engaging in public legal education, for example, is another way that the profession can contribute on a pro bono basis. But the contribution of pro bono needs to be strategic and co-ordinated, and the Law Society has provided the Pro Bono Charter and Manual to encourage and spread good practice.
National Pro Bono Week, and the LawWorks annual awards, capture commitment and exemplars of pro bono delivery. But there are also ‘pro bono deserts’ – within firms and in-house teams, as well as locations. Pro bono internally needs leadership and buy-in to drive the supply side. A compelling business case for pro bono can be made, including as part of corporate social responsibility.
A barrier can be the perception of not having relevant legal knowledge, but solicitors have exceptionally valuable and transferable skills. Discrete areas of law can be learnt – a commercial lawyer can, for example, win cases at a social security appeal tribunal, representing people with life stories and problems a world away from theirs (and those of their colleagues and paying clients).
Many in the profession are understandably anxious, some even cross, that pro bono is being expected to meet the increasing need and demand for free legal advice. That is why the ‘no substitute for’ mantra needs to be matched by deeds, and why LawWorks is developing a policy voice for pro bono. We recently co-ordinated and produced a detailed submission for the Commons Justice Committee for the review of LASPO – supported by 15 organisations – and have been submitting consultation responses to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s recent reviews of strategy, training and the regulatory handbook. Regulatory bodies can play a stronger role both in enabling pro bono, and promoting more broadly access to justice for the vulnerable and those unable to pay.
But putting aside policy debates, there is something exceptional and profound about the profession’s commitment to pro bono – including the contribution of law schools which are developing the lawyers of tomorrow, and making a difference to securing justice. Pro bono is more than a public good.
Martin Barnes is chief executive of LawWorks (the Solicitors Pro Bono Group).