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
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital