A better way to be free

Law: A group set up by big City firms aims to change the face of solicitors' unpaid pro bono work.

The new Solicitors' Pro Bono Group will not be an elitist organisation of City law firms which have suddenly found a social conscience, says its first full-time director, Peta Sweet.

Ms Sweet, a legal journalist and solicitor, took up her new job this week, providing the first national focus for pro bono work undertaken by solicitors. That will include commissioning research across the whole profession, developing best practice models and liaising with existing free legal advice services.

Ms Sweet, 32, former news editor of the Solicitors' Journal, says: "There is already some concern at the high-street level that this is a big City guilt-appeasing act. But that is not what it is all about and I hope we can counter that effectively once solicitors see what we are doing.

"Despite public perceptions of the legal profession, pro bono work is carried out extensively but it is mostly done on an ad hoc basis - weekly sessions at a local Citizens' Advice Bureau or sitting on the board or trustees for a charity.

"What we need to do is establish a clear picture of the sort and amount of pro bono work that is being carried out and then promote best practice models across the profession."

One immediate problem will be deflecting public expectations that the group can provide a referral service for individual cases - every mention in the media prompts dozens of pleas for help.

"I have already had a letter from a windmill restoration charity asking for free legal advice," Ms Sweet says. "However, we just do not have the information or resources to run a referral unit at this stage."

Pro bono - short for pro bono publico ("for the public good") is a buzz phrase, used by those annoyed by raucous headlines pillorying "fat cat lawyers".

In some American states law firms are obliged to give a percentage of their time to pro bono work but there is no such obligation here. However, lawyers have been providing free legal services for many years - the Bar's Free Representation Unit has for 25 years provided law students, trainees and young lawyers to represent people in industrial, social security and immigration tribunals, for which legal aid is not available.

"Making pro bono obligatory here just would not work," Ms Sweet believes. "If you look at what is happening in the high street, with many firms facing an uphill struggle to survive, that kind of regulation would just explode in the profession's face.

"What we have to do is show firms the benefits of providing pro bono work in terms of training, broadening experience and improving links with the local community."

However, that will mean overcoming the old concern that pro bono work could be used as an excuse for cuts in legal aid.

"Pro bono work is not intended to replace legal aid," Ms Sweet emphasises. "But, realistically, legal aid is not going to increase whatever the complexion of the government so there will always be a huge gap of unmet legal needs which the profession should be helping to bridge.

"Talking to the Government about the future of legal services in the light of the Middleton report, for example, will be high on our agenda."

Part of the challenge of raising the group's profile will be winning the profession's financial backing through membership fees. Several large law firms, including Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Dibb Lupton Broomhead, Herbert Smith and Linklaters & Paines, have covered the group's first year budget of pounds 100,000 and promised a similar amount to underwrite the second year. But the group, which is a registered charity, is committed to being self-financing within that period.

Alongside its research work, the group is likely to lobby for changes to make pro bono work more attractive.

Mark Stephens, of Stephens Innocent, is a member of the SPBG's executive committee and is keen to see it take on a "proselytising role". He believes more lawyers would do work free if they could claim their costs from the losing side when they won. Pro bono clients should also have the same protection from having to pay their opponents' costs if they lost that litigants on legal aid enjoyed.

For the Bar Pro Bono Unit, which has been running a referral service for the past year, one priority is to encourage more solicitors to make use of its panel of 720 barristers, which includes 120 QCs.

Vanessa Simms, the unit's administrator, says less than 20 per cent of the 450 cases that have come into the unit have been referred by solicitors.

"The number is disappointing as there is a big need for the service we offer but perhaps the word has not got around yet among solicitors. The vast majority of cases come directly from members of the public but quite often they are also in need of a solicitor so our ability to help them is quite limited"

The Solicitor's Pro Bono Group is at 15 St Swithin's Lane, London EC4; tel 0171 929 6601/2/3. The Bar Pro Bono Unit is on 0171 831 9711 and the Bar's Free Representation Unit on 0171 831 0692.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'