Despite – or perhaps in response to – the challenges of the pandemic, law firms in London are doing more pro bono work than ever. With the 20th annual Pro Bono Week behind us, the London Solicitors Litigation Association commends London’s legal professionals on the innovative ways they have adapted their pro bono efforts to overcome the challenges of Covid-19.
As the pandemic approaches the end of its second year, the LSLA calls for UK law firms with pro bono schemes to redouble their pro bono efforts in support of the Covid-19 recovery response.
We cannot rest on our laurels: we have all seen the increased inequality caused by the pandemic and there is a great deal that lawyers in London and our members can do to ensure justice is accessible for the widest and most disadvantaged groups.
We have seen some truly excellent pro bono initiatives come out of the pandemic. All firms should look to these when considering the questions: What more can we be doing on pro bono? What sorts of initiatives should we be exploring?
Embracing online legal advice clinics
Pandemic-driven initiatives, such as an increase in online legal advice clinics, have allowed more lawyers to conveniently provide advice to clients who live outside of metropolitan centres or who are unable to travel to a clinic. Pandemic measures, such as government-mandated lockdowns, impeded clients’ ability to travel to centralised legal clinics, affecting access to justice on a practical level. Pivoting legal advice sessions online enabled lawyers to dispense vital and time-sensitive advice to clients in spite of these obstacles.
Although the UK is no longer in lockdown, the LSLA hopes that law firms and legal clinics continue to offer online sessions where appropriate, as they provide a complementary service to in-person clinics which has become too valuable to lose. Online legal advice clinics were a welcome innovation arising out of the pandemic and have enabled new opportunities for pro bono engagement.
Pro bono collaboration
It’s also been encouraging to see firms continuing to collaborate with their peers on effective multi-firm projects, such as the free legal advice initiative for victims of the Windrush scandal, and the Greece Pro Bono Collaborative.
Launched in 2019, the free legal advice initiative for Windrush victims is spearheaded by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and eight leading law firms. The impetus for this was the consistently low numbers of applications for the UK government’s Windrush Compensation Scheme. In the two years since the scheme was launched, less than 2,000 claims had been made – representing just 17% of the potential total. To encourage more victims to come forward, the initiative assists them in navigating the complex application process from start to finish, including submitting claims for compensation.
Another ambitious multi-firm project is the Greece Pro Bono Collaborative – now in its second year – which provides crucial assistance to asylum seekers in refugee camps in the Greek Islands. The six firms involved in this initiative partner with the NGO European Lawyers in Lesvos to provide urgent legal support to vulnerable individuals of all ages, genders and nationalities for asylum interviews and family reunification applications. Pre-pandemic, volunteer lawyers from the six firms travelled to Greece on two-week secondments to provide assistance. During the pandemic, that was no longer a viable option, but the successful transition of the scheme online ensured that this vital legal support was maintained.
These are some examples of the effective pro bono work that can be done in all corners of the legal sector. In the wake of the pandemic, many individuals and businesses are facing hardships that they have not had to face before. This makes pro bono work all the more important, and the legal sector is well-positioned to make a difference here and give back to those in need.
Further action is needed
The importance of pro bono work cannot be overstated and, even at a time when there are so many other pressing issues high on the business agenda, it should be given priority by firms with pro bono programmes. We are now at a point of opportunity, and the return of lawyers to their City offices can catalyse a rejuvenation of firms’ pro bono efforts to provide a boost for free legal advice for the most vulnerable.
In the wake of the pandemic legal access is more important than ever before and, as a profession, we must rally and work together: we cannot let a reduction in legal access become a legacy of the pandemic.
John Rogerson is head of the pro bono subcommittee of the London Solicitors Litigation Association