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EXISTING funding for the provision of free legal advice must not be reduced if the Labour Party is successful in encouraging a greater pro bono commitment from the profession, the Bar Council and the Law Society have warned.
Responding to Labour's calls for lawyers to "make a contribution to the community" by offering their services for free, both bodies said that members would agree to work in support of legal aid, but not as a substitute.
Labour's legal affairs spokesman Paul Boateng said last week he would open discussions with the profession, with the aim of establishing a unit to "co-ordinate and encourage" pro bono work.
The voluntary scheme would involve lawyers working in law centres or Citizen's Advice Bureaux and large firms could be asked to make cash donations or sponsor a full-time worker in lieu of providing advice.
Both arms of the profession already allow a substantial amount of time for free advice through CABx, the Free Representation Unit and schemes such as Lawyers in the Community. Seventy-five per cent of all firms already do some pro bono work, while barristers on all circuits also act for free.
In addition, the Bar and the Law Society are currently assessing methods of increasing the scope of voluntary work.
Bar chair Peter Goldsmith QC said it was "very important" Labour proposals did not identify the pro bono system as a replacement for legal aid.
"People on modest means are entitled to representation through a properly-funded legal aid scheme," said Goldsmith. "Any pro bono scheme must not be seen as a substitute for a proper legal aid system."
Goldsmith's comments were echoed by Chancery Lane, which said although lawyers were happy to provide a reasonable pro bono service, no greater responsibility should be placed on them than was expected of other professions.
"It is the Government's responsibility to ensure access to justice," said head of professional policy Russell Wallman. "It does that mainly through the legal aid scheme and it can't shrug off that responsibility by saying lawyers should do more pro bono work."
But he added: "There are always going to be some areas that legal aid can't cover, such as tribunals, where people will nevertheless need representation. Pro bono work can make major contributions there.
Warner Cranston solicitor John Abramson, a representative of the City of London Law Society, said any proposals needed to be clearly defined.
"There is a difference in the resources required to provide voluntary advice in a CAB and those needed to run a case for somebody," said Abramson.
"If anyone is going to be asking lawyers to commit resources on a voluntary basis then the extent of that commitment has to be clear."