The Law Society has set up a working party, under the chairmanship of its council member and head of the Serious Fraud Office, George Staple, to examine what pro bono work is being carried out by solicitors and what further needs may exist, particularly in the wake of the cuts in legal aid eligibility.
What is also important, according to Karen Mackay, a society spokeswoman, is to examine the largely uninvestigated extent to which the skills of solicitors can be matched with the needs of society.
The unknown part of the equation, Ms Mackay says, is how effective pro bono work is for the recipient. Little research has so far been done, but it may emerge that agencies have to spend too many resources to train solicitors, to induct them into their ethos and to match lawyer Bloggs with client Smith.
The working party will look at the current state of pro bono work carried out through law centres, citizens' advice bureaux and other agencies with legal advice rotas. Surveys conducted by the society's research unit will bring in information about what individual firms are doing.
The first question to be tackled is what exactly constitutes pro bono work, says Ms Mackay. In theory, it is defined as providing services free or below normal cost to individuals or organisations. In practice, however, it is widely interpreted. To some, membership of a charitable trust's board of governors is considered pro bono; but what if the charity is Eton college? 'Many legal aid firms say that they do a lot of low-paid work, and that they often paper over the cracks by working for nothing when, for instance, an old client cannot get legal aid,' she says.
Ms Mackay believes that the contribution made by solicitors is reasonably widespread. 'Look at, say, a provincial firm whose work is 30 to 40 per cent legal aid, and who also has referral arrangements with the local Citizens' Advice Bureau (CAB). They are frequently telephoned by the CAB and given advice without charge. These informal arrangements are very common. If there were a strict rule here about doing a fixed amount of pro bono work, as in the US, firms would start notching up those 15-minute phone calls.'
The working party will look at the suitability of imposing such a rule in this country; a suggestion that will doubtless raise some strong opinions. 'In the US,' says Ms Mackay, 'there is no doubt that pro bono work is used as a marketing opportunity, to impress clients and to get the sort of young lawyers they want.'
Pro bono work in advice centres is seen by many as useful training, particularly for trainees who may not otherwise gain experience of case management. The working party may consider the idea of awarding some kind of recognition of pro bono work, for instance allowing work in tribunals to be counted towards advocacy 'flying hours'.
Most, if not all, of the largest firms do pro bono work, in more or less co- ordinated fashion. Macfarlanes, for example, undertakes a range of activities. One of the firm's partners is the joint co-ordinator of the Tower Hamlets Legal Advice Centre and sits on the advisory committee of the City of London CAB. Another partner is involved with the London Federation of Boys' Clubs; yet another is an approved will drafter for Aids sufferers referred by the Terence Higgins Trust.
Apart from its work at law centres, Allen & Overy acts for charities and learning institutions at reduced rates, according to the managing partner, William Tudor John. The firm also counts as pro bono, its funding of two academic chairs at Durham and Oxford universities.
Nabarro Nathanson does a lot of work with Business in the Community, according to the firm's managing partner, Colin Davey. In Barnsley, for example, Nabarros has set up a short- term letting scheme for local community groups. Two assistant solicitors from the firm's Doncaster office put in some 50 hours of free work each on the project, Mr Davey says.
The firm is also setting up an advice scheme for a CAB near the West End office. 'We are aiming to co-ordinate all our pro bono activities,' Mr Davey says. 'They are important for the proper perception of clients as to what lawyers do, they are of tremendous benefit to individuals and they also hone the skills of the lawyers.'
Over at the Bar, the Free Representation Unit (FRU) is celebrating its twenty-first anniversary. The unit acts for applicants to immigration, industrial and social security appeal tribunals and Criminal Injuries Compensation Board (CICB) hearings, for which legal aid is not available. Those who work for FRU are students, pupil barristers and occasionally trainee solicitors.
The number of cases taken on by FRU has risen dramatically in recent years and the unit has launched a scheme, spearheaded by the chairman of the Bar Council, John Rowe QC, to involve more senior barristers in free representation work. 'Really, we are tapping the good nature and public- spiritedness of barristers,' he says. Mr Rowe has set an example by rolling up his sleeves and undertaking cases himself.
The scheme is attempting to get chambers to commit themselves to take on a certain number of free cases a year. It is addressing sets in London and the South-East, hoping, says Mr Rowe, to tap in senior barristers who have done FRU work in their time and are likely to be well disposed.
FRU is a charity, helped in part by the Bar Council, with the majority of its funding coming in donations, mostly from barristers. 'Those who can't give their time give money,' says Nick Cox, a member of FRU's committee.
The work brings mutual benefits, he says. 'Very few people do it merely to advance their careers, but it is seen by the Bar as very good experience to have. In an industrial tribunal, for example, you are sometimes appearing against a barrister of 10 or 15 years' standing. It puts you on your mettle.'