Top figures at the three main regulatory bodies have said they would support the introduction of aspirational targets outlining the number of hours of pro bono work lawyers should aim to do a year.
The idea comes as the profession decides how best to respond to lord chancellor Michael Gove’s controversial proposal to get top firms to plug the justice gap through a levy or compulsory targets.
At a panel discussion to mark the start of national pro bono week, representatives from the solicitor and barrister regulation bodies expressed doubts about the idea of introducing mandatory pro bono targets.
Vanessa Davies (pictured), the director general of the Bar Standards Board, said the idea of forcing City lawyers to do compulsory pro bono work was ‘facile’. She added it would make it less likely for lawyers to do the work with the same spirit of professionalism as they would otherwise.
Paul Philip, chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, warned changing one system could have a knock-on effect on other parts of the profession.
But both said they were receptive to the idea of setting ‘aspirational’ targets following the lead some City firms have taken to encourage more pro bono work without making it compulsory.
Davies said regulators could issue best practice guidance as long as these targets were not enforced, while Philip said this was the type of thing the profession should be doing.
Sir Michael Pitt, chair of the Legal Services Board, was supportive of any move to set aspirational targets, but added it was an initiative which might be better for representative bodies rather than regulators to set.
While the three regulatory bodies stood in agreement on this issue, Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society, said such a measure would be ‘counter-productive’.
‘A large number of small firms are doing a huge amount of pro bono work that is not getting recorded and legal aid firms are struggling,’ he said, adding that this means targets recommended by the Society could seem as though the body was talking to firms from ‘ivory towers’.
In order to help firms sustain pro bono work, the Law Society today published a guide for those wanting to set up a pro bono programme. The guide provides a framework to support solicitors to develop a strategy to embed pro bono in their working lives.
Meanwhile regulators acknowledged that more could be done to loosen restrictions which make it difficult for in-house lawyers to do pro bono work.
Philip said a ‘change in primary legislation’ is needed to lift these restrictions, but said that if regulation was getting in the way of in-house lawyers doing pro bono work then the SRA needs to change that.