Friday, 2 December 2016

Where there is no legal aid - lawyers do it for free

I was honoured to be asked to give the opening address at last week’s Pro-Bono and CSR Match Making for the Legal Sector organised by Liverpool Law Society. The event was attended by lawyers from the smallest of Law Centres to the Head of Pro Bono at DLA Piper – one of the biggest firms in Europe.  In addition there were volunteers from various agencies offering free legal advice and charities who support Access to Justice. These included  CABx , Law Works, North West Legal Support Trust, Law Centres Network and Liverpool’s two biggest Universities. The idea was to bring together those firms who offer Pro Bono legal work and those who desperately need such support.

My talk focussed on the changing attitude towards Pro Bono work in the profession in the face of huge areas of unmet need. So here is a summary of what I said!

‘This is the first event that I have ever attended which contained the words ‘match making’!

If we are going to talk seriously about Pro Bono work we need a definition. This is from the Law Society’s 2015 Survey of The Pro Bono work of Solicitors –

Legal Advice or representation provided by lawyers in the public interest including to individuals, charities and community groups who cannot afford to pay for that advice or representation and where public funding is not available. Legal work is Pro Bono legal work only if it is free to the client, without payment to the lawyer or law firm (regardless of the outcome) and provided voluntarily by the lawyer or his or her firm’.

In order words it is free!

In 2014 I wrote a blog called –

I acknowledged the huge amount of free work done by lawyers. But the main argument was that people should not have to go looking for a generous lawyer who will take their case on for nothing. This could not be expected to plug the gaping hole left by the devastating cuts in legal aid. The danger was that cynical politicians could look on this area of free work and say to themselves – ‘job well done – we have got rid of legal aid and the legal profession are doing the work for us’.  I was saying that this should never be seen as a substitute for a properly funded legal aid scheme.

I still believe all of that. But things have also moved on. 

There are now whole areas of the country and whole areas of legal need and work that are rightly described as waste lands. There are increasing numbers of people, particularly the most vulnerable, who simply cannot access legal help because they cannot afford it. That is the stark reality that faces us. Someone has to do it or people will be deprived of justice.  A few years ago there was a similar argument about food banks – ‘why should we feed the hungry because the state has let them down?’ the answer soon became apparent – ‘because if we don’t how will they eat?’

 If a person cannot gain access to justice then justice itself becomes worthless

So the point has been reached in relation to justice where we have to set aside the political rights and wrongs. If a person cannot gain access to justice then justice itself becomes worthless. This is why many of us became lawyers in the first place. The needs of the vulnerable must outweigh our discomfort with political rhetoric.

Which bring us to the point of today. How do voluntary agencies identify lawyers with appropriate expertise and who will assist clients for no payment? How do lawyers who want to offer free legal work identify where such work will be used most effectively? The purpose of this event is for both sectors to meet each other and come up with a formula for resolving unmet need most effectively. Part of the morning will involve presentations but the most effective use of the event will be networking and pooling of resources.

I won’t say 'enjoy the sessions' but I do hope that it will be useful and ultimately those in the greatest need will benefit.’

It was a very useful event all round.

Time will tell how effective it will be.

But I would encourage lawyers in other cities to consider doing the same and/or hear the experiences of other who might have done it already...

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