Law: For the good of the public - and for free

Many lawyers do valuable unpaid community work, but the system needs regulation.

"IN THE pro bono arena, I do not want to be a Nimby," avowed the Solicitor General Lord Falconer at the inaugural national conference of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group at the beginning of this month.

This was seen as a positive, if rather cryptic, remark from one of the country's senior law officers.

For those who think that pro bono means that you support the lead singer of U2, it is in fact the abbreviated form for the Latin phrase pro bono publico which covers the work of lawyers done free "for the good of the public". Contrary to popular belief, this does happen quite frequently.

Inevitably, as one cynical lawyer observed: "In a week when there was the announcement of the House of Lords' inquiry into the level of QCs' payments from the Legal Aid Fund, and the historic meeting of pro bono lawyers, you would not have difficulty guessing which topic would get more news coverage."

But many home truths were highlighted at the first conference of the group, including the fact that many City law firms who purport to support the initiative did not turn up in person for the conference. The high profile exception was Tony Willis, a partner at the largest law firm in Europe, Clifford Chance, and chairman of the group.

One of the problems highlighted by the conference was the lack of information about the work which is actually done - it is not measured on any quantitative or qualitative scale so that, as the anecdote goes, helping the local golf club with drafting its constitution can be included as pro bono work.

But what is also not recorded is the free advice and assistance given to a whole range of cases, from the mentoring of teenage children in inner cities to providing legal advice to the World Jewish Congress for the recovery of the Nazi gold; from providing advice to the two women who survived the Ethiopian Airlines crash following the hijacking, to numerous Caribbean death row cases.

There was also good news about the profession's efforts in providing free legal advice and assistance. A 1995 survey showed that the London office of Chicago-based Baker & McKenzie was the top performer with an average of 13 hours per annum of pro bono work; more recent Law Society research has showed that lawyers in private practice give, on average, 37 hours of free advice and help a year.

As Peta Sweet, director of the group, acknowledges: "Lawyers all over the UK - both barristers (through the Bar Pro Bono Unit) and solicitors - provide free advice in a wide number of community projects, but it is not often recorded or recognised. That includes a number of under-rated initiatives such as the local branch of the Law Society in Leeds setting up a small claims advice centre within the local county court and providing phone advice lines to the local advice agencies. All over the country, there are links between law firms and Citizens' Advice Bureaus to provide legal advice."

But what those surveys also show is that, to make real progress, UK lawyers will have to adopt the approach of the US law firms. For American lawyers who want to stick to the ideal of serving the public in the pursuit of truth, justice and the American way, doing pro bono work can mean the most rewarding and interesting jobs - and not necessarily in monetary terms.

And it is money that remains the bone of contention. Cynics say that pro bono work is not recorded because their paying clients might object, or because the public will query why more advice is not provided pro bono.

Peta Sweet says: "Pro bono is not anything new. What we are saying is that the time has come to build on what is already happening. The profession, with outside agencies, needs to look again at the way pro bono work is undertaken and to work more effectively together so the approach is less ad hoc and more co-ordinated. The results will benefit everyone."

Lord Falconer, in his keynote speech at the conference, said: "If there is a cynic present, he or she might say that the Government's support (for pro bono services) is driven by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But that is a mistaken view and I should like to nail it here. Pro bono work is not an alternative to an efficient and fair system of access to justice which this Government intends to deliver. - it is complementary to it."

Cynics were no doubt tuned in to the Radio Five Live Nicky Campbell phone-in programme at the end of that "bad for QCs" week, when the awkward figure of Attila the Stockbroker was pitted against Mark Haslam and Burton Copeland, and asked, possibly rhetorically: "Why aren't all lawyers forced to do work pro bono?"

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?