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
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
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.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own