A ccess to justice. Justice for the ordinary man

Since the Law Society's pro bono working party published its report, Solicitors Serving Society, in May 1994, there has been a significant increase in the number of references in the legal Press to pro bono activity by solicitors' firms.

Examples of such work include Clifford Chance, under the 'Business in the Community' initiative, waiving fees worth tens of thousands of pounds by giving legal help to a project in Brixton which leases out workshops for new businesses, and Linklaters & Paines helping a community health centre by supplying advice for free which was worth between £40,000 and £50,000.

These initiatives are admirable and at the same time help to improve the reputation of the whole profession.

For the most part, however, they are restricted to acts of pure charity or to commercial areas of law in which the firms concerned have particular expertise.

No doubt these initiatives also have promotional or marketing value, presenting an appealing image of unselfishness and social concern.

What they lack is any significant impact on the daily legal problems of ordinary people in such matters as housing, crime, employment, immigration, discrimination, and welfare. To that extent they do not address the subject of the report, of solicitors serving society.

This theme is also summarised in the Law Society's own motto “leges juraque servamus” (we serve law and justice). The profession's under- lying justification for its status and privileges is its collective responsibility for access to justice and that, of course, must mean for all citizens.

It is time for the profession to clarify the extent of its obligations to the legal needs of the public and what it can do to fulfil them. The urgency is heightened by the likelihood that a Labour government, if elected, will seek an enhanced contribution from the profession to improve access to justice.

The working party's report has been criticised as a missed opportunity to establish a new agenda for the profession in the area of voluntary legal services.

The problem with the report was that it was too timid. The familiar argument prevailed that modest recommendations had more chance of securing support and implementation. But even these modest recommendations have made little headway.

The profession can make its contribution to access to justice either by providing the necessary services itself or by supplying the funds to employ others to provide them. The working party supported both options, suggesting a free representation scheme along the lines of the Bar's Free Representation Unit and a trust fund to be provided by those who do not have the time or the relevant skills but who have profited from their membership of the profession. Contributions to the latter were to be voluntary.

The fund could improve access to justice through a variety of initiatives: grants to law centres, providing law libraries, scholarships, research, even providing back-up support for legal aid firms, or supplementing legal aid itself.

However, approaches subsequently made to some of the larger City firms fell on stony ground. No fund has been established or is planned.

Because the Courts and Legal Services Committee also agreed with the working party that any mandatory element in voluntary legal services should be rejected, the proposal for a trust fund seems effectively to have been abandoned. Nor has the free representation scheme yet got off the ground.

The working party was understandably reluctant to make any recommendations which might encourage the Government to weaken its commitment to legal aid.

The legal profession must not encourage the State to relinquish its responsibility to provide funding for legal representation, and neither can it stand aside and ignore the growing polarisation between those who represent the business community and those who provide legal help to people of limited or no means in the matters which most affect their daily lives.

That responsibility is shouldered by struggling legal aid practices, law centres and advice services, often starved of resources and subsisting on a fraction of the incomes of commercial lawyers in the City.

The disparity of resources between individual and institutional litigants when opposed to each other is glaring and a denial of justice.

League tables now regularly appearing in the legal Press claim that the annual profits of several City firms average upwards of £300,000 per partner. Substantial contributions by these firms towards redressing the imbalance between the funds available to individual and institutional litigants would cause no hardship.

The profession will only have itself to blame if its failure to address glaring discrepancies in the distribution of resources and in its acceptance of public responsibilities leads to drastic action by a future government.