Govt’s pro bono promises prove empty

This was meant to be the year that pro bono “went mainstream”. At least, that was how one enthusiastic advocate, Terence Black, managing director of BAE Systems Capital and vice-chair of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group, put it when he spoke to The Lawyer in June as the second National Pro Bono Week kicked off.

It was a sentiment voiced by many in the profession who had been buoyed by the Government’s seeming endorsement of lawyers’ huge unpaid contribution. In the intervening 12 months between the first and second National Pro Bono Weeks, the movement received the public support of the Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith QC, who, along with a successful career at the commercial bar, had set up a free advice centre in East London’s Bethnal Green. Goldsmith set up his pro bono committee and gave the former Law Society president Michael Napier the rather grand-sounding title of ‘pro bono envoy’ to the Attorney-General.

So it is all the more disappointing – but not altogether surprising – to learn this week that the ministers’ apparent enthusiasm has not been matched with hard cash. The flagship LawWorks pro bono project (a partnership between the Solicitors Pro Bono Group and the Law Centres Federation to increase pro bono legal advice) already appears to be under threat. As far as the City firms are concerned, it has been one of the greatest successes of the nascent pro bono movement in that it provided a focus on their disparate good works.

It has already made a mark. LawWorks for Community Groups, which acts as a ‘dating agency’ by matching community groups to willing lawyers prepared to offer advice, has seen some 200 community groups helped by 250 solicitors acting on a pro bono basis. This advice alone represents a saving of around £1.2m in legal fees for the not-for-profit sector.

But the scheme has already suffered funding problems and was kept afloat following some half-a-dozen donations of between £5,000 and £10,000 from firms on both sides of the Atlantic. Now it appears that, since the Government’s start-up money in 2001, no further funding has been forthcoming. Even free legal advice comes at a cost – albeit small when compared with the contribution it makes – and so the Government should put its money where its mouth is.