A service beyond legal aid

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The Independent Online
The range of pro bono work carried out by lawyers covers everything from headline-grabbing cases to individual battles for justice.

Mark Stephens, of the solicitors Stephens Innocent, said: "We tythe ourselves by devoting 10 per cent of our gross fees to pro bono work. But we are highly selective in what we undertake - it has to be either an area of principle or one which affects a large number of people."

Examples of the cases the firm takes on include many successful representations of pensioners challenging their employers, use of their pension funds and the ultimately unsuccessful European challenge to the UK's blasphemy laws over the British Board of Film Classification's banning of the film Visions of Ecstasy.

Michael Field, of Andersons Solicitors in Croydon, Surrey, helped a young client he was advising over a sex discrimination case to obtain a barrister to put her case at an industrial tribunal for free through the Bar Pro Bono Unit.

Mr Field was advising Sarah Jane Duffield, then 17, under the Legal Aid Board's green form scheme, which enables low income clients to seek advice and assistance about a case. Miss Duffield, a sales assistant, wanted to bring a case against her employers after being sexually harassed by the shop's manager.

Mr Field says: "The legal aid scheme does not extend to cover representation before an industrial tribunal. However, it was clear this was a sensitive case which required skilled advocacy and Miss Duffield was not in a position to pay counsel's fees."

The tribunal in Stratford, east London, found for her and awarded her pounds 2,250 plus interest of pounds 228.50.

Miss Duffield, now 18, says: "I had been to other law firms but they had asked for large sums of money up front. I was very happy at the way Mr Field suggested pursuing the case and very pleased at the outcome."

Other cases taken on by the Bar Pro Bono Unit include the wrangle over the Zulu boy Sifiso Mahlangu who was fostered in England but whose parents wanted him back in South Africa. The unit obtained a QC to act for his foster mother pro bono, although the case was later funded through legal aid.

Other examples include a woman who had been held liable for her father's trading debts, without any proper basis. She was represented by junior counsel in the county court and the judgment against her was set aside.

In another case a QC secured a five-figure libel settlement and apology for a husband and wife from a national newspaper.

The London chambers of 1 Crown Office Row, headed by the former Bar Council chairman Robert Seabrook QC, set up its own pro bono scheme for public law cases a few months ago and has already taken on about a dozen cases

Grania Langdon-Down