Pro bono is no substitute for legal aid, but it might be time to accept it's the only option out there, writes John van der Luit-Drummond
Despite the approach of Valentine’s Day, and early evidence to the contrary, there seems to be no love lost between parliamentarians and the legal profession, even though the former may be worth listening to.
Bob Neill MP, chair of the justice select committee, made headlines and earned plaudits this week after dismantling the insurance industry’s call for personal injury reform and criticising the Ministry of Justice for ‘firing in the wrong direction’ with its attempts to eradicate whiplash fraud.
The Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst was joined in his thorough cross-examination of James Dalton, the director of general insurance policy at the Association of British Insurers, by solicitor Alberto Costa MP and barrister Alex Chalk MP, the latter of whom made headlines himself following an exclusive interview with Solicitors Journal.
The chair of the APPG on pro bono suggested that, in the face of legal aid cuts, lawyers need to voluntarily and enthusiastically undertake more free legal advice work. The barrister, who specialises in serious crime at 6KBW College Hill, stressed that pro bono was not a substitute for legal aid, but with the government’s attention focused elsewhere it would be left to the profession to ensure access to justice.
In contrast to those on the opposition front bench who have claimed Labour will increase spending on legal aid without providing specifics, Chalk’s pragmatic and nuanced remarks were refreshing, even if somewhat depressing. The arguments against lawyers doing more work pro bono are well rehearsed and were subsequently rehashed widely on social media – and with some vitriol – following the publication of Chalk’s interview.
Legal aid lawyers do plenty of free work already; it exploits solicitors and barristers who have spent time and money developing skills they should be remunerated for; City firms only use their corporate social responsibility schemes to woo big clients, they’re not interested in the coalface of justice; M&A lawyers don’t have the expertise to assist with complex issues like welfare law; vulnerable clients shouldn’t have to rely on university law centres staffed by CV-padding students; and, if the profession does too much, what will stop the government scrapping state-funded legal assistance entirely?
There is an element of truth in all these arguments, but as we quibble over how much pro bono is enough, and where it should come from, more and more people slip through the advice gap. How to stop this remains open to debate. Should we have a regulator-imposed pro bono hours target, as opposed to voluntary professional body schemes? A tiered regime where those at the coalface are partially or fully exempt? A pro bono tax on corporate firms? Or a buddy system where regional heavyweights are paired up with legal aid practices to help share the load?
The latter seems the more likely, as it already works with law centres across the country. In the West Midlands, for example, Allen & Overy has teamed up with the Coventry Law Centre Legal Clinic to provide employment law advice to those who are no longer eligible for legal aid. The partnership has proved mutually beneficial, with students gaining valuable experience and contact with qualified experts, while solicitors at the Magic Circle outfit had the chance to consider employment disputes from the other side of a tribunal.
In the North West, Stephensons will be sending its trainees on secondment to the soon to be opened Greater Manchester Law Centre, only the third centre to open since LASPO. And, in Tower Hamlets, Dentons has launched its second PopLaw clinic. The firm has provided free legal advice to more than 4,500 clients from across the borough since opening the doors to its clinic in Poplar in 2006. The new clinic’s launch in Whitechapel is timely as over half of children in the ward, the 14th most deprived in London, are currently living in poverty.
Hand wringing, teeth gnashing, and finger pointing will not stop the UK’s ‘advice black hole’. Even a change of government tomorrow would not put the wheels back on the legal aid bus. It is time for interventionist thinking. Should lawyers have to prop up the free legal advice sector? No. But in the absence of any alternative plan, must it? That is another question entirely.
John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal