Pro Bono: Good Enough
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From the introduction by Lord Philips of Sudbury, co-founder of the Solicitors Pro Bon Group (now LawWorks)
‘Has access to justice in modern times ever been as tenuous as it is today? What one tends to forget is that even 50 years ago, when I started in the law, the majority of the public never darkened the doors of a solicitor’s office. They did not have the assets to make that necessary, quite apart from the fact that in the intervening half century parliament has spewed out more statute law than in the previous millennium. Today everyone is drawn into the legal net.
Over the same period the nature of soliciting has also changed beyond recognition. When I started, 95 per cent of all law firms were general practices, the average size being two or three partners (there was a limit of 20 until the late 1960s). Most did some legal aid (no contracts then) and were communally embedded at a time when communities were still strong and when, as a result, local reputation meant every- thing. The solicitor who simply sat in the office coining it in, declining to take an active pro bono part in civic life, would pay for it in terms of local esteem and lost clients. Private interest and public benefit happily coincided.
Today, not many see solicitors as part of a profession anymore, and certainly not as serving a vocation. We are broadly indistinguishable from any other business committed first, second and third to ‘the bottom line’. We have gone from making ‘a good living’ whereby one took the rough with the smooth to an occupation where, at the high-earning end, one can make a fortune, as many do.
The writing was well on the wall when I co-initiated the Solicitors Pro Bono Group – LawWorks – just over 20 years ago. My belief then, as now, was that, given half a chance, most solicitors – especially the younger ones – want to feel part of the system of justice; want to have an ethos to profess; want, from their position of privilege and power, to contribute to the civic realm. The question was and is how.
In the interim the pro bono movement has advanced steadily, though the going is hard. The plight of the high street general practice, whether or not doing legal aid, has become progressively more difficult. Not only has the legal aid scheme itself been undermined by governments of all persuasions, but the national
breakdown of community life and, with it, the rise of a rabid materialist individualism has changed the culture of lawyering. Client relationships are out; price-driven transactional lawyering is in. Contingency fees, fee farming and commission payments, advertising and (from 2011) external ownership of law firms have (inter alia) done the rest.
The crisis in legal services is of course part of the wider one, which saw the near-death banking collapse we still live with. As regards legal needs, free market dogma, unbuttressed by any public ethic is a disaster. It leaves lawyers free to ignore the needs of those who cannot get legal aid and cannot afford to pay. Which is why, of course, every lawyer occupies a pivotal position in today’s law-saturated society. We are, indeed, the indispensable gate- keepers to justice.
The pro bono movement accepts that in some career situations – in-house lawyer to a big company, or employment in an international law firm – there is no organic connection with such needs. They have to be sought out and some quasi-training undertaken if the most pressing needs of poorer citizens are to be addressed.
But what is clear is that it would be devoid of the most basic professional morality for the best paid lawyers to contribute least to the common weal. The joke in all this is that those who do pro bono seem to get more from it than they give to it. Again and again one hears from junior solicitors in large law firms how indispensa-ble their pro bono contributions are to their peace of mind, to their sense of fulfillment and connection to justice and society at large. So often it provides the lawyer with the chance to help someone in plangent need with an eventual effect that fundamentally improves their life.
Of course, pro bono work is no substitute for legal aid and it was gratifying to hear the new Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC MP, say as much, unreservedly, at the splendid reception at the law courts in The Strand on 19 October to celebrate the opening of the joint pro bono offices in Chancery Lane. But in times of public expenditure stringency there is no point in pretending that the impact on an already damaged legal aid scheme does not further hit access to justice and so increase the need for all solicitors to lend a hand.
Equality before the law is an ancient boast, recognised since the Magna Carta. Indeed, it is surely the essential bedrock of democracy. That equality has two essential elements. The first, open courts and an impartial judiciary, is with us. The second, truly accessible legal advice and representation, is palpably not.
I hope this excellent compilation of essays, which flesh out that failing, written by people who are committed to its mitigation and eradication, will help stimulate an ever wider pro bono contribution from lawyers everywhere.’
The Justice Gap series is an ongoing series of publications and events. The ideas behind the series are as follows: to make a positive and different contribution to the debate more…