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Lawyers must not ‘prop up’ ailing legal aid system

Law Society launches new pro bono charter, but warns against free advice becoming a substitute to ‘a properly funded legal aid system’

7 November 2016

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The Law Society has kicked off National Pro Bono Week by launching a pro bono charter and manual aimed at enhancing the voluntary practice carried out by law firms.

Signatories to the charter will commit to improving access to justice for those unable to pay for legal help or access legal aid, while the manual aims to support firms in developing sustainable, reliable, and effective pro bono programmes.

‘The Pro Bono Charter offers a framework to unite the solicitor profession’s pro bono strategies, policies, and learning and further enhance the impact of the pro bono work carried out by our members,’ said the president of the Law Society, Robert Bourns.

However, Bourns, like his predecessors at Chancery Lane, once again warned that pro bono must ‘never be viewed as a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system’.

Last year, Michael Gove, used his first public speech as the then Lord Chancellor to argue that City law firms should do more to protect access to justice by providing more pro bono initiatives, an idea that was roundly criticised by the profession and quickly dropped by the justice secretary.

‘Solicitors do a huge amount of unsung pro bono work providing voluntary, free legal services to those who cannot afford them. This ranges from larger firms supporting law centres or providing pro bono legal advice to charities, through to smaller firms giving free advice to clients who are unable to pay,’ added Bourns.

‘The Law Society will continue to underscore the importance of appropriate levels of investment in the justice system, which is a key public service like the NHS and education, in order to protect access to justice for all.’

Last year, solicitors provided an estimated 1.8 million hours of voluntary legal advice while more than 3,600 barristers, including a third of all QC’s, offered help through the Bar Pro Bono Unit.

Demand for free legal advice has never been greater following cuts to legal aid, with LawWorks’ reporting over 43,000 individual enquiries were made between April 2014 and March 2015, a 55 per cent increase on the previous year.

‘National Pro Bono Week is an important initiative,’ said chairman of the Bar Council, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC. ‘It recognises the valuable contribution legal professionals make by helping those in need of legal support. A belief in the need to ensure access to justice for all in society is part of the Bar’s DNA.’

Earlier this year the Bar Council set up the Bar Pro Bono Board as a hub for the profession to provide support for pro bono initiatives, to collate information about the Bar’s pro bono endeavours, and to increase awareness about the profession’s commitment to free legal advice.

Alison Padfield, co-chair of the board and barrister at 4 New Square, commented: ‘Barristers are seeing at first hand the hardship caused by government cuts to legal aid and funding reforms, and we know that even some help from a barrister – while it can never be a substitute for legal advice and representation as of right – can be a lifeline.

‘The Bar Council provides practical support for barristers through its new pro bono board, and will soon be publishing a new pro bono toolkit for barristers and a directory of pro bono schemes through which they can volunteer.’

Sarah Phillimore, a board member and family law barrister at St John’s Chambers, added that a commitment to pro bono work has always been seen as an important part of a lawyer’s professional duties but they were not there to ‘prop-up’ an ailing legal aid system.

‘I appreciate there is always going to be a tension for lawyers who provide work for free – neither I nor any other lawyer want to be part of any kind of “propping” up of a system where legal aid is removed and litigants in person are thus left to sink or swim in a sea of confused statute and regulations,’ she said.

‘But nor is it acceptable for us to sit back and do nothing; there are some urgent gaps that need plugging and some people for whom the provision of sensible legal advice at a crucial time can make all the difference.

‘I hope that at least one positive impact of the Bar Council’s work will be to provide better recognition and co-ordination of pro bono work at the Bar and thus more effective direction of our energies.’

Sponsored by the Law Society, Bar Council, and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), National Pro Bono week comprises a series of events and workshops aimed at raising awareness of the free legal advice on offer for vulnerable members of the public.

Another initiative launched today is the National Pro Bono Centre’s online matching service, which aims to connect lawyers with organisations providing pro bono services and in need more legal experts.

A full list of events for National Pro Bono Week is available here.

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @sportslawmatt

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