Guest Insight: 'Government and Pro Bono' - Steve Hynes, Director, Legal Action Group

An article by Steve Hynes, Director of LAG exploring the relationship between Government and pro bono.


Former Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, had suggested that wealthy lawyers should "look to their consciences" and do more pro bono work or contribute cash to prop up the poorer parts of the justice system. 

City Law firms and the legal professions were remarkably measured in their response to this provocation. Imagine the outcry if doctors or other well paid public sector employees were exalted to do the same to off-set public spending cuts? Pro bono work has played an important part in the history of publicly funded legal services and can continue to do so, but should not be taken for granted by the government.

There is a long history of lawyers undertaking pro bono cases which reaches back to medieval times and earlier. Just prior to World War II the poor person’s procedure, which had originally been established in the reign of Henry VII in 1495, collapsed. Solicitors could no-longer afford to provide their services for free, as a combination of law reform and changing social attitudes had led to a growth in the numbers of poorer people seeking to divorce.

The increasing need for help with divorce cases led directly to the founding of the civil legal aid scheme after the war. Throughout the first half of the last century lawyers had acknowledged that pro-bono services were not adequate to meet the demand for advice from a democratically enfranchised population with increased legal rights granted to them by parliament.

Like their counterparts from the last century, today’s pro-bono lawyers will recognise that while they can offer some help, they can only scratch the surface in meeting the demand for advice. From a peak of 450,000 six years ago, the number civil cases funded by legal aid for the sort of everyday problems people face has dropped like a stone to under 100,000. The largest reduction came after the changes introduced by the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in April 2013. Benefits and employment law cases were almost entirely removed from the scope of legal aid and advice in immigration, housing and debt severely restricted. The LawWorks Clinic Network Reports show pro bono clinics gave advice in 28,000 cases in 2014-15 and 35,000 cases in 2015-16; a credible achievement for a completely voluntary service, but less than 8% of the total cases lost to legal aid cuts. This is set against massively increasing demand on the clinics network; 89% of clinics reported an increase in demand for advice over the last reporting year.

As a consequence of the legal aid and other cuts to not for profit (NfP) agencies there has been a knock-on impact on the pro bono clinics they host.  In the LawWorks 2014-15 report, 41% of clinics reported ‘reduced capacity to provide pro bono services’ and 40% reported ‘reduced access to funding to run their clinic’ compared to the previous year. Some services have disappeared completely, for example the closures, due to legal aid cuts, of Harehills and Chapeltown Law Centre in Leeds and Cardiff Law Centre spelt the end for the pro bono clinics they hosted.

Pro bono as part of the corporate social responsibility policies of large city of London and other law firms is probably here to stay, but policy makers should not make the assumption that firms will choose to fufil this obligation by taking work on their doorsteps. For as well as a much reduced NfP advice sector limiting their opportunities to do so, there is the attraction of engaging in international pro bono work. This plays an important part in spreading the rule of law and promoting human rights, acting as an important adjunct to the UK’s soft diplomacy efforts. It also has the advantage of avoiding the political controversy of replacing services previously funded by the state.

Steve Hynes is the Director of LAG and the author of Austerity Justice published by LAG. The book traces the development of civil legal aid and voluntary advice centres, including pro bono services.

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