Lawyers should be obliged to work pro bono to help tackle the crisis in public confidence in the legal profession, a think tank report today recommends.
The Westminster-based independent group ResPublica says that the teaching, legal and medical professions have all suffered harm to their reputations in recent years, losing sight of their common purpose and being seen as self-serving interest groups promoting their own interests.
Its report, entitled In Professions We Trust, states that the ‘largely negative’ attitude towards lawyers from the public has not been reversed, which in part has resulted in the acceptance of withdrawal of public spending on the profession.
The solution, the report concludes, is for pro bono work to become mandatory for all lawyers as part of their professional obligation. The think tank acknowledges that many solicitors and barristers already undertake a considerable amount of free work, but says for some lawyers the law has become ‘no more than a revenue generating business’.
It adds: ‘This ‘it’s a business’ approach undermines the profession’s vocation and can grievously harm its ethics. It is also a major source of public hostility.’
The pro bono obligation would be set notionally at 10% of a lawyer’s work output, but would be set lower for lawyers on smaller incomes. ResPublica’s report suggests this new obligation would produce 30m hours of free legal advice each year in England and Wales.
The idea of lawyers carrying out more pro bono work as a duty has been floated by justice secretary Michael Gove. He told parliament last month that he is going to ask the ‘very richest in the justice system to do a little bit more’ to fund the justice system, either through time or financially.
The ResPublica report also recommends that all lawyers be required to swear an oath upon qualification, as well as focus more on ethics in their legal training and education.
Oaths would provide a ‘visible public confirmation’ that lawyers have sworn to provide the level of service and commitment to the common good expected by the public.
A final recommendation of the report is to establish a ‘duty to mediate’ for all solicitors and barristers, applying to all cases in criminal and civil law. This would bring down fees, save public funds and compel lawyers to find and develop new skills of alternative dispute resolution.
‘We need a renewed emphasis on the place of arbitration and dispute settlement, grounded in a less adversarial form of the profession that is more responsive to both sides in any given dispute.’
The report invites the SRA to begin research and explore new practices that move beyond rule-based approaches. Part of this may come through encouraging and lauding positive role models in the profession which have been selected by lawyers.
The Law Society today said there is no other profession doing so much work for free as the legal profession.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: ‘The legal profession is committed to providing free legal advice to those in need. On average each solicitor provides more than 50 hours a year of free advice benefitting some of the most vulnerable people in our society who would not be able to access legal help in any other way.
‘All of this is on a voluntary basis and reflects solicitors’ commitment to the communities they live and work in and to our wider society.
‘From young families facing eviction to charities dealing with the legal complexities of delivering their services, solicitors giving legal help for free helps so many people, directly and indirectly.’