Pro bono work only begins at home

The Bar Pro Bono Unit celebrates its tenth birthday this year. I want to take the opportunity of this anniversary to propose two areas where pro bono ideas could be of great value to the public, both in the UK and overseas.

First I would like to see law schools increase their engagement with pro bono activities. And second I would like to see some pro bono activity being directed towards building sound and competent legal systems in parts of the world that need them.

I believe that understanding the responsibility of being a lawyer – that the commitment to help people is not an ‘add-on’ to a professional career but an inherent part of it – is one of the things that we should try to teach young lawyers from the earliest opportunity.

I would like to see more law schools making it easier for students to be directly engaged in pro bono work. Such work helps students develop their understanding of the role of law in society. They learn to recognise the duties that the Government and legal professionals have to society. They begin to focus on the question of how to address unmet legal needs. And clinical legal education – putting theory into practice while under supervision – helps develop real legal skills.

It is not only law students who benefit. Law schools benefit too, as pro bono programmes promote recruitment – students want to study at schools that provide them with the opportunity to get involved in pro bono projects. And supervised pro bono programmes will create links between the law school, the local legal profession and the local community.

The legal profession itself would also benefit by bringing into firms and chambers lawyers who already have the right attitude as well as some of the right legal skills to make a success of their chosen career.

And for the public? Pro bono programmes help to meet unmet legal needs.

Traditionally we think of pro bono work as legal activity in this country. But there is a role for UK lawyers in the field of public-interest work overseas.

We are fortunate to live in a country with a mature and effective legal system. People in many other countries are less fortunate. A lack of functioning and effective courts, corruption and shortages of competent lawyers are affronts to justice and to basic human rights. They also hold back a country’s development. They lead to people taking the law into their own hands. And refugees will stream from countries where legal systems offers no protection.

A lot is already being done by the Government, by international organisations, by non-governmental organisations, by legal institutions and by individual lawyers to help solve these problems.

But I believe that the legal profession in England and Wales is in an excellent position to support greater building of sound and competent legal systems in parts of the world that need them. I believe that the commitment to justice that inspires pro bono work needs to be applied to the benefit of our neighbours, as much as to ourselves.

I should like to invite more lawyers and firms to consider what they can do in this international pro bono effort. If only 10 per cent of the energy which presently goes into pro bono activities at home were additionally put into pro bono activity abroad, I believe a substantial contribution would be made to creating new capacity and more access to justice as well as respect for individuals’ rights in many parts of the world.

Many firms and individuals already do commit themselves, at least to that extent. But for those who do not, I would like to suggest starting with a 90-10 split, so that at least 10 per cent of the pro bono activity, energy and resources they apply at home is applied to international public interest work.

Working pro bono publico is part of being a lawyer. By further engaging law schools and by expanding the work we do overseas we can help to ensure that pro bono activity is recognised as an integral part of membership of the legal profession.

Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith

Please note that this article represents the opinions of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the views of The Lawyer or Centaur Media.