The challenges posed by the pandemic create difficulties not just for the clients seeking legal redress, but also for the lawyers who support them. Finding the time to provide pro bono support during busy periods can be difficult as litigation requires a significant commitment both of time and energy. This can be a factor preventing litigation solicitors from taking on cases in the first place, or cases may not be pursued where there is a need for more complex advice or advocacy which the solicitor is unable to provide. Barristers also want to help their pro bono clients, but may not always have the necessary resources, or sometimes the entirety of skills to pursue the case further. Moreover, barristers should not need to spend excessive time on tasks that solicitors have the expertise to complete quickly, and solicitors should not need to ring around trying to find a friendly barrister to advise pro bono. Pro Bono Connect provides the solution.
Pro Bono Connect works to link up barristers and solicitors on pro bono cases so they can work together, for the benefit of individuals, charities and community groups. The scheme was set up in 2015 by Jamie Goldsmith QC of One Essex Court Chambers after he encountered exactly the difficulties described above, and challenges trying to balance pro bono and other work. After a successful launch and several years of growth, supported by an Executive Committee, the scheme came under the governance of LawWorks in late 2019 and is managed by an Executive Officer, in collaboration with Advocate. 40 firms and 45 chambers now participate in the scheme which is constantly expanding and evolving to welcome new members and diversify the areas of work covered. The Pro Bono Connect scheme is currently free to join. There is no obligation to accept any cases or onerous requirements. Members should adhere to the Pro Bono Protocol, and ensure trainees and other staff are appropriately supervised.
The scheme is simple. A barrister can request assistance from a solicitor by filling out a request form outlining the nature of the case and the scope of the assistance required. This is distributed to the panel of solicitor members who then bid to offer their help. If multiple offers are received, the barrister and client select whom they want to work with. The request can be for a short piece of discrete work, e.g., taking a client’s witness statement, completing disclosure etc, or for more general assistance perhaps towards preparing for a hearing.
There are many benefits to litigation solicitors in carrying out pro bono work in this way. The scheme covers a range of litigation practice areas, so there is a wide variety of work on offer. Recent cases have covered property, chancery, breach of contract, defamation, data protection, employment, immigration, human rights, and regulatory law to name a few. There will already be a specialist barrister involved. It can be particularly interesting for more junior lawyers to become involved in newer areas of law and develop their skills in these new areas, subject to complying with the Pro Bono Protocol.
Solicitors can also seek assistance through the scheme. So, if there is a need for counsel’s advice, or for representation at a final or interlocutory hearing, this can be requested, again by completing a request form. Requests for barrister assistance typically receive several offers within a matter of hours. Barristers value the opportunity to work with experienced litigators in a range of firms. It may not be so daunting taking on a litigation case pro bono if there is a clear route to collaboration.
Pro Bono Connect prides itself in creating successful collaborations. We work with the requesting party to ensure we have all the relevant information to match the cases to the most appropriate lawyer. Pro Bono Connect matched its 100th case in November 2020 and receives an average of 4 requests a month. The scheme actively encourages applications for pro bono costs orders, which are paid to the Access to Justice Foundation to support pro bono and not-for-profit projects. We are grateful to the organisations which have helped us to fund the scheme so far, namely the Access to Justice Foundation, the Farrer & Co Charitable Trust, and the Simmons & Simmons Charitable Foundation.
There are huge benefits to pro bono clients if they are supported by a solicitor and a barrister and clients speak very highly of the scheme. It encourages early settlement, and better outcomes at trial. There have been many notable successes, including in the Supreme Court. These include recovery of defrauded funds, saving vulnerable client’s home from predatory lenders, protection of charity’s intellectual property, preservation of rights to family life and free speech, and gains in employment tribunals for unfair dismissal following disability and race discrimination.
As lawyers continue to change how they work, perhaps from home as necessitated by the pandemic, or more flexibly or part time, there may be more opportunities to assist clients pro bono. Pro Bono Connect can help litigators make the most of these opportunities.