The registered charity Citizens Advice took the opportunity afforded by National Pro Bono Week to call on more lawyers to back its bureaux and claimed that the efforts of law firms were being surpassed by other professions.
At a signing ceremony at the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) to mark the start of a week of events as part of the fourth National Pro Bono Week, 29 firms pledged to provide legal services in the community free of charge. And Citizens Advice called on yet more lawyers to undertake pro-bono work.
"Pro bono work is a rewarding way to help solve the problems of our most vulnerable citizens and deprived communities," said Citizens Advice director of policy Teresa Perchard. "It should never replace the legal aid system, but it can help those that the system can't and improve services offered by the voluntary sector."
At the last count, solicitors volunteered at 195 bureaux, while barristers gave free help to clients at 35 bureaux. These range from members of City firms doing free work at the RCJ bureau helping litigants-in-person, to local solicitors doing regular sessions of free legal advice at their nearest Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).
"CABs and their clients already benefit hugely from the generosity and commitment of many solicitors and barristers, who regularly give their time and expertise for free," Perchard continued. Pro bono week was, she said, "a chance to say thank you to those lawyers already doing this and to encourage others to find out more and get involved. We want lawyers and law students to contact their nearest CAB to see in what ways they can use their expertise to help."
Speaking after the event, Citizens Advice's James Sandbach said that solicitors still had some way to go in terms of matching the support offered by other sectors. "The story that was missing in Pro Bono Week was that the legal profession is actually quite bad at doing pro bono work - especially if you look at the other professions, such as the accountants and financial advisers, who do a lot more," he said. "The pro bono culture has been changing with [the arrival of] more US firms, who build pro bono into the firms with incentive structures."
Sandbach reckons the support offered by financial advisers to bureaux was "more than twice as much" as that offered by solicitors' firms. He also welcomes as a "big development" Allen & Overy's decision to donate the interest it earns by consolidating client monies which are on deposit to the not-for-profit sector to the London Legal Support Trust. He called on solicitors to "recognise the potential for doing more pro bono work".