This week is National Pro Bono week – where lawyers put their customary reserve to one side to talk about the good works they do for nothing. According to LawWorks ‘every year, solicitors in England and Wales provide hundreds of millions of pounds worth of free legal advice to people in need who cannot afford legal fees’.

As part of the Justice Gap series we published Pro Bono: Good enough?, a collection of essays which explored ‘the uneasy relationship between volunteer legal activity and access to justice’. This year’s pro bono week comes within days of the final reading in the House of Commons of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill  which promises to remove £350 million from the £2.2 billion budget. You can download the Pro Bono collection here.

The central theme of Pro Bono: Good enough? was how does the pro bono movement (most enthusiastically backed by big City law firms with commercial clients) relate to providing access to justice to the poor and the vulnerable advised, if at all, by cash-strapped advice agencies and legal aid firms .

Pro bono is,  as the profession puts it, ‘an adjunct to, not a substitute for, legal aid’. Lawyers don’t want to give ministers any excuse to withdraw from legal aid. But, as the scale of the cuts to legal aid demonstrate, this government doesn’t need an excuse. Plus, the ‘adjunct to/ not substitute for’ formula implies a clearly delineated relationship between the profession’s voluntary endeavors and ‘access to justice’ that never was really there.

There is a need for a debate as to how the wider profession addresses the ‘justice gap’ – that growing section of the population that cannot afford a lawyer and yet isn’t sufficiently poor to qualify for publicly funded legal advice – and whether to does that through the pro bono movement. That was a view that came from a number of contributors to  the Pro Bono: Good enough? collection.

It would be churlish to criticise the huge amount of work done by lawyers on any number of fantastic schemes  – but there is a growing frustration on the part of lawyers themselves  about pro bono because it exists in a sort of policy vacuum with an absence of coordination that frustrates many. To take one example from Pro Bono: Good Enough?, the chief executive of one of the largest claimant law firms – Neil Kinsella of Russell Jones & Walker – saying ‘we can no longer rely on individuals to provide pro bono as and when they feel like it. It should become compulsory for all lawyers’.

It was a significant moment when Michael Smyth CBE, formerly of one of the largest City firms Clifford Chance, said that his old firm’s ‘default position’ on pro bono was that it was about ‘social welfare law’ as opposed to the more headline projects that tend to be recognised in the awards. How many other City firms would say the same?

Plus, why call is ‘pro bono’? It’s not a term that most non-lawyers understand.  It seems odd that the phrase survived the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf’s Latin cull. It seems rather typical of lawyers to do a lot of good work free… and then give it a Latin name that no one understands.

You can read Russell Conway’s thoughts on pro bono and legal aid here.


Author: Jon Robins

Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon’s books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council’s journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year’s Criminal Justice Alliance’s journalism award

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