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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?"