Leading City firms should not be forced to help fund access to justice through a compulsory levy, an event to launch the Law Society ‘Pro Bono Charter’ heard today. In the latest sign of City hostility to the concept, Hogan Lovells chair Nicholas Cheffings suggested such a levy would distract firms’ attention from voluntary pro bono activities. 

Then lord chancellor Michael Gove first floated his controversial plan to make City firms plug the justice funding gap in his speech to Legatum last year. He suggested that more could be done by ‘the most successful in the legal profession to help protect justice for all’.

However, today's event heard that advice centres and government departments should instead be told that investing in legal advice and similar services would actually save them money. 

The Pro Bono Charter encourages solicitors and firms to sign up to a ‘statement of commitment’ to improving access to justice through providing pro bono services.

It was noted during the launch at Chancery Lane that pro bono ‘should not be seen as an alternative’ to legal aid, sparking a discussion about the best way to ensure as many people as possible can get access to justice. 

The event heard that there is a tendency by some lawyers, particularly those at larger City firms, to specialise in one area and that gaining knowledge of a secondary area of law, related to civil matters, could increase pro bono output.

Paul Yates, head of pro bono at magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, said young lawyers should start pro bono work as ‘early as possible’ during their training and have the necessary supervision.

The work of universities and law schools, many of which offer schemes for students to give advice to and represent clients, was also praised.

However, a suggestion that the government might see pro bono as a viable alternative to legal aid and that solicitors should ‘let the system fail' in order to show the effects of legal aid cuts was described by Hogan Lovells chair Nicholas Cheffings as ‘fantastical’ and a ‘reprehensible line of action’ for a legal professional to take.

One audience member said the large number of attendees at the event should be welcomed but suggested that the problem lay with ‘the people not in the room’ and that there was still work to be done to encourage pro bono participation.

Law Society president Robert Bourns said solicitors do ‘a huge amount’ of unsung pro bono work: ‘This ranges from larger firms supporting law centres or providing pro bono legal advice to charities, through to smaller firms giving free advice to clients who are unable to pay.’

Guy Beringer, chair of the Legal Education Foundation, said solicitors’ and advice centres’ ‘involuntary’ work, carried out when funding has dried up, should also be praised.

Bourns added: ‘The pro bono charter offers a framework to unite the solicitor profession’s pro bono strategies, policies and learning and further enhance the impact of the pro bono work carried out by our members.’

He added that the Society would continue to monitor the impact of legal cuts.

A pro bono manual, published at the same time, provides practical support for solicitors and firms to develop effective pro bono programmes.

Today marks the start of National Pro Bono Week, sponsored by the Law Society, Bar Council and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives.