A High Court judge has reignited the debate about pro bono goodwill after comparing lawyers who work for free to Boxer, the tragic Stakhanovite horse in George Orwell's Animal Farm. 

Mr Justice Williams made the comparison in ME and MP, in which the father appealed a 2018 judgment which concluded that his 12-year-old son should live with the mother and have no direct contact with him. Williams said the 'lengthy and comprehensive' 45-page judgment addressed issues 'of the utmost seriousness in the private law arena'.

Counsel for the father, whose appeal was allowed in part, and the mother, who is deaf, acted pro bono.

Williams J said: 'That counsel for the father and for the mother should appear pro bono in such a complex case as this is in the finest traditions of the legal profession. Up and down the country, counsel, solicitors and legal executives fill the gaping holes in the fabric of legal aid in private law cases because of their commitment to the delivery of justice.

'Without such public-spirited lawyers how would those such as the father and mother in this case navigate the process and present their cases? How judges manage to deliver justice to the parties and an appropriate judgment for the child without such assistance in cases like this begs the question. It is a blight on the current legal aid system that cases such as this do not attract public funding.

'So far removed from the stereotyped "fat-cat", the legal profession in cases such as this are more akin to Boxer in George Orwell's "Animal Farm" always telling themselves "I will work harder".'

In the book, Boxer was a hard-working, strong, loyal and caring horse. The ruling pigs take advantage of his loyalty and work him until he collapses. He is then sold to the horse slaughterer. Whenever something went wrong, he blamed himself and vowed to work harder.

The father's appeal was allowed in part after Williams J concluded that the decision to make a final order regarding direct contact was wrong. He stressed that his conclusions did not involve any criticism of the parties' lawyers or the judge in how they approached the case. 

He said: 'It was clearly an exceptionally difficult case on its facts. The procedure which the court had in essence been forced to adopt to determine the fact-finding and welfare imposed a further difficulty on all concerned... The judgment itself is plainly carefully crafted and considered. However even the best of judges (who also happen to be fallible human beings) in comprehensive and careful judgments can occasionally get things wrong.'

Last week the Ministry of Justice published its review of controversial legal aid reforms, which showed that removing public funding for private family law cases led to a steep increase in the number of unrepresented parties - from 13% in 2012-13 to 36% in 2017-18.