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Lawyers bid to raise pro bono momentum

13 January 2011

A new campaign has been launched to encourage law firms to give cash sitting dormant in client accounts to the Access to Justice Foundation.

‘It’s not just peanuts’ aims to mobilise firms into giving small amounts from unclaimed client accounts more systematically.

Under current regulatory rules, firms may donate up to £50 to charity without prior SRA approval and the campaign’s target is to raise £25,000 in its first year.

Speaking at the launch of the campaign at Lovell Hogan last night, Peter Goldsmith QC, former Attorney General and vice chair of the foundation, said if all firms made a few donations each year the sums collected would easily reach £1m – a not insignificant amount explaining the name of the campaign.

Firms donating under the new scheme will be allowed to use the foundation’s logo in their CSR literature. Bob Nightingale, a foundation trustee and veteran access to justice campaigner, also made a – seemingly not binding – promise that the first few firms to donate would be given a toy monkey, the mascot used to front the campaign (pictured).

Solicitors Account Rules allow unpaid balances under £50 to be paid out to charity provided the firm takes and records the steps taken to identify the rightful owner and return the money.

Donations of amounts above that limit require prior approval by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

At this stage the campaign focuses on amounts below £50, but Goldsmith said it was time the SRA “reduced the bureaucratic burden” on law firms’ charitable giving.

Current Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC said it was “our duty as lawyers to help ensure everybody could have access to justice” before adding that assisting with pro bono initiatives was “one of his most important roles”.

He also said the government was still considering alternative sources of funding for legal aid, including a mechanism similar to France’s CARPA, where client money is held in a centralised account generating interest that goes towards the funding of the French legal aid system.

The Access to Justice Foundation is the ‘prescribed charity’ under section 194 of the Legal Services Act set up by the Lord Chancellor to receive the funds awarded by the courts in ‘pro bono costs orders’.

Its funding is not limited to section 194 orders, and it is seeking income from other sources.

The sums collected are to be used to provide grants to pro bono charities, law centres, citizens advice bureaux and other organisations whose purpose is to provide or assist with access to legal assistance.

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