In national pro bono week, Morecrofts’ managing partner Alison Lobb writes about the meaning of pro bono work, and the importance of access to justice.
Pro Bono Publica “Professional work done voluntarily and without payment, for the public good”. Most, if not all of us, do it to some extent or another, but the meaning of pro bono can be so very different depending on the firm, its location and its specialisms. We should all be proud of what we do and the difference we can make to society, in whatever way we are able to contribute, and usually the best way to make a valuable contribution is to do what you know, and can do best.
In 2015-16, when I was President of Liverpool Law Society I was invited by Robert Bourns, the then President of The Law Society, to a round table meeting in Chancery Lane to help inform the Law Society’s stance on pro bono. The group comprised of around 30 representatives of different firms, and it was soon clear that the views of those in the room as to what pro bono actually meant to them, were extremely varied.
The majority of people in the meeting I attended were either based in the City of London, or worked for large national or international firms. They were able to tell us about the structured programmes they offered, the people they employed to support those programmes, and the incredible work they were doing, such as assisting with American death row appeals, or working on human rights issues across the globe. I could have come away feeling most inferior!
However, the majority of law firms in this country, and the solicitors who work within them, have a different outlook. Of around 135,000 practising solicitors in 2016, the majority did not work in firms with structured pro bono departments. I was there to represent their views.
That meeting changed my perception of what solicitors do as pro bono work, and the myriad of different ways of providing it. What those firms are doing is amazing, and they are the best positioned to make that difference. At Morecrofts however, as, a multi-service firm with a strong local community base, you are not going to find us preparing death row appeals or flying our trainees around the globe. Our expertise lies closer to home and so, in the same vein, we do what we know best, and provide assistance in the most effective way we can. Whether that is through CAB rotas, charity sessions, victims’ groups, church groups, university law clinics, you’ll find us there. We provide our advice free of charge to hundreds of people on a monthly basis, in many different areas and in all walks of life. We support our staff in joining boards or taking on school governorships thus providing expertise in that way. I suspect most other firms do the same. Certainly in Liverpool everyone seems to do what their resources will allow. We are fortunate in that we have a bedrock of support, and passionate individuals who aim to ensure that our efforts are targeted in the most effective way.
Steve Cornforth, President of Liverpool Law Society 2011-12, set up that Society’s Access to Justice Committee that year, in anticipation of the issues which would arise with the implementation of LASPO in April 2013. The committee encourages pro bono initiatives, and organises conferences and forums involving private sector lawyers, third sector agencies, local authorities and members of the local judiciary. As someone who started his career working in a local Law Centre, Steve is passionate about the provision of legal services to those who can not afford to pay, and remains involved in the committee and the promotion of its activities even after his retirement from private practice.
In 2015 the committee organised a conference entitled “Mind the Gap” to highlight areas the need for advice, to emphasise that, contrary to popular belief, Legal Aid was still available in some areas of work, and to bring together private sector lawyers, third sector employees, volunteers and anyone else involved in the provision of legal services to connect , grow their networks and work together to ensure that pro bono services were aimed in the right direction.
There were many positive outcomes from that conference, but one is particularly noteworthy. A property lawyer in the audience asked “What can I do?”. His view was that as he had no knowledge of areas of law where advice was needed, there was nothing he could usefully do to help. One of the panel responded and suggested he offer his commercial skills and business acumen to help a local charity as a trustee. That proved to be a revelation for him and many others in the room, and, as a consequence, not only did he go on to offer his services, but the society’s magazine, Liverpool Law, now regularly highlights pleas from local charities who are looking for trustees who can make a positive difference to their services by using their skills and expertise.
Another off shoot of “Mind the Gap” was the creation of the Access to Advice Forum, which was set up in the same year. The initial aim of that forum was to bring together advice giving bodies who had been adversely affected by LASPO, and to co-ordinate advice provision across the six local authority areas covered by Liverpool Law Society and comprising the Liverpool City Region (LCR).
The forum planned a signposting exercise to help providers to connect those seeking help with the right provision. The aim of the exercise was that whilst we knew we couldn’t plug the gap, we could at least try to address unmet need by identifying what that need was and looking for solutions. However it became apparent that was far too big a task for a group of volunteers, due to the amount of advice providers within the LCR, and also because it identified that in fact signposting was often resulting in those in need being passed from agency to agency without acquiring any useful benefit.
The committee and forum provide advice to politicians, for example through providing statistics on legal advice deserts to local councillors, making them aware of gaps appearing in provision of advice and helping with queries arising through their surgeries. With MPs the information collected has enabled them to carry out their own investigations, raise awareness of need, and has led to their posing questions in the House on vital access to justice issues.
Chris Topping, current Liverpool Law Society President, is another who is passionate about access to justice issues. Recognised as Human Rights Lawyer of the Year at the Law Society Excellence Awards in 2016, Chris originally became a director of the Society to succeed Steve as chair of the Access to Justice Committee. His view is that the main success of the Committee has been to start a conversation amongst advice providers, in an arena where their views could be acted upon. Solicitors and advice providers became far more attuned to one another’s needs and found ways to work together. This has led for example to an increase in commitment to University legal clinics where students are exposed to several different legal disciplines, with the hope that they will in turn give back to society themselves in a similar way.
The signposting project lives on in a different guise. James Mannouch, the current president of the committee, highlighted the ongoing project designed to map free legal advice within the city of Liverpool (funded by the City Council through the Mayoral Hardship fund and led by the University of Liverpool), which has risen from the ashes of the original plan. He told me that they are looking beyond the traditional view of pro bono “When we think of free legal advice, we tend to think of third sector organisations (for example, Citizens Advice or Law Centres) but the project lead is keen to account for free advice offered by private law firms too. Some of this free advice will be ’30 minute interviews’ and some will be legally aided, however some of it will be traditional ‘pro bono’, and the project should give us an indication of the quantity of pro bono which is typically offered within a provincial city.” The report on that is awaited in due course and the project demonstrates how the forum has been a catalyst for joined-up thinking between the public and private sectors throughout the City.
From the start, the elephant in the room has always been “ Why should we give our time and services at our own expense, when this could be funded through legal aid?” The oft-debated issue is a tricky one. When it comes down to it, however the fact is that as all caring and compassionate human beings, none of us can morally justify allowing a situation to continue where there are people in dire need, and we can help, but do not do so. However we should never lose sight of the fact that pro bono can never be a substitute for a properly funded legal system.
In my view, the essence of pro bono is doing what you can do to improve the lot of society, and ensuring that provides the most benefit. That is always going to vary depending on your skills and expertise, but there is always somewhere those can be channelled to benefit those in need. You might not need a formal programme, or a an employee to co-ordinate your efforts. Everyone simply needs to apply some thought as to where their skills can best be applied. There is no point a corporate lawyer giving advice on domestic violence injunctions for example, or a conveyancer addressing employment matters, but find what you do best, find who you can help, and do it the best that you can.