Civil legal aid cuts have put ‘more pressure’ on the need for pro bono work, the attorney general has accepted, following a call to make it compulsory for lawyers to volunteer their services for free.
At the Law Society’s Pro Bono Question Time debate in Westminster, Sejal Karavardra, director at Birmingham firm DBS Law, suggested pro bono activities should be made mandatory for all firms to meet the growing need for free advice.
Speaking to the Gazette, Dominic Grieve QC said: ‘I’m the first to recognise there is more pressure on pro bono as a result of the LASPO [Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of offenders Act] changes – I have no doubt about that.’ He said there is also more pressure on MPs, with constituents attending surgeries with problems that have a ‘legal angle’.
Grieve (pictured) said there are ‘deep philosophical differences’ about whether pro bono should be seen as a voluntary or compulsory activity.
But Karavardra argued: ‘We already do compulsory CPD – it should be the same for the number of pro bono hours,’ and that the number of obligatory CPD hours should be cut to make more time.
She said: ‘There would be no riot about it in my firm, but there are a large number of firms that just don’t understand pro bono.’
Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter accepted that the change would help to meet the increasing need, but said: ‘We do seem to be expecting rather a lot of the legal profession; rather more than we do of other professions,’ particularly given the fee cuts for those doing publicly funded work.
Conservative MP Jessica Lee argued that compulsion sat uncomfortably with the nature of pro bono work, but suggested that it could be made a compulsory part of legal training.
A contributor from the floor indicated that this is done in other jurisdictions. For example the New York bar introduced a mandatory requirement for students to complete 50 hours of pro bono work, while Singapore is set to increase from 20 to 40, the hours of pro bono work that students must do before qualifying.
The crossbench peer chairing a commission on the future of advice and legal support, Lord Low, suggested: ‘It is not a binary choice between volunteering and compulsion; incentives may work.’
The Law Society’s vice president Andrew Caplan felt the profession would not buy compulsion, noting that league tables had worked to incentivise firms in Australia, as well as the efforts by the government to award contracts only to firms that undertake pro bono work.
But Liberal Democrat peer Lord Phillips of Sudbury maintained: ‘The crisis is so acute, I’d like to see the profession impose compulsion.’
Phillips said the issue should not be a matter for the legal regulators, but suggested the profession should levy its members according to the earnings to fund pro bono legal advice.
A barrister in the audience noted that this year for the first to time the Bar Council included a box on the practising certificate renewal form for barristers to make voluntary £30 donation to the Bar Pro Bono Unit.
Other suggestions to encourage lawyers to undertake pro bono work included treating such work as billable or tax incentives for those firms that do it.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau noted: ‘Changes to legal aid and judicial review will mean the demand for pro bono grows,’ and stressed the expectation should not be that pro bono can fill the gap.
A speaker from the floor added: ‘The government has created a disaster for the legal advice sector. Quotas or compulsion for pro bono work just lets them off the hook.’
During the debate Slaughter predicted that the government will have to restore legal aid for social welfare law ‘at some stage’.
He said: ‘You can never go back to where we were before, but there is a clearly identified social need for legal aid in this area and the public would support it.’
The attorney general said he was not in a position to comment, but said the Ministry of Justice is monitoring closely the impact of the changes.
He said it is looking at the extent to which LASPO increases the number of litigants in person; whether it alters the number of people who are seeking access to the courts without help of any kind and what effect it has on courts and tribunals.