This time last year I was congratulating the Law Society on the successful launch of the first ever National Pro Bono Week, which I hailed then as a well taken opportunity to demonstrate that lawyers are not ruthless, fee-generating machines, but rather caring, committed professionals who want to give something back to the community. The society was entitled to feel pleased with itself for helping to showcase an aspect of the profession's work that too often goes unsung.
Top marks, therefore, to the team at Chancery Lane who have rallied round the flag once more and are set to repeat last year's success by organising an inspiring programme of events for today's (9 June) launch of National Pro Bono Week 2003.
But behind the celebrations, all is not well in the pro bono camp. The Government's cuts in legal aid have left even more vulnerable people in need of free legal advice. This has coincided with a downturn in the current economic situation and by law firms taking on fewer trainees – the lifeblood of pro bono in most firms. The resources available to pro bono activities are at an all-time low and with demand exceeding supply, pro bono is struggling to cope.
A recent survey found that 28 per cent of law fims had ditched legal aid contracts in the last year, with 78 per cent of the remaining firms saying that they may have to give it up in the next five years. Against this background, people are turning in increasing numbers to pro bono to fill the gaping hole in the provision of publicly funded legal services.
So what is the guardian of pro bono, the Law Society, doing to protect the profession's greatest asset? More than anything else, pro bono restores the public's faith in lawyers and helps to dispel their image as cynical fat cats, but instead of investing in pro bono, so far this year the society has committed no more than £100,000 of its £80m budget to supporting it. This under-funding of pro bono at the top has been repeated at a local level, with the Solicitors Pro Bono Group having to appeal to the profession for funds earlier this year to save its LawWorks community law project from closure.
A year ago, Law Society president Michael Napier accepted the appointment as the Attorney-General's pro bono envoy, charged with the task of coordinating pro bono throughout the profession. Despite concerns about involving the Government in pro bono, Napier has made a valuable contribution to advancing the pro bono cause by producing the first nationally-endorsed pro bono protocol. The protocol is a best practice guide for practitioners. He has also introduced an initiative to encourage law schools to promote pro bono and is launching a pro bono website this week.
There is no doubt that the Law Society has done well to use Napier's political connections to bring pro bono to a wider audience, but this has been at the expense of risking Government interference in the service. Instead of attacking the Government over its legal aid cuts and its failure to improve access to justice for the most in need, the society appears to be prepared to compromise the independence of pro bono by offering to share its most precious prize.
The potential for conflict of interests goes deeper still, as much pro bono work is about fighting off the encroachment of the Government on the rights of the individual. Napier insists that, as the Attorney-General's envoy, he is only a messenger, but what pro bono needs right now is a champion who will take on the Government and expose how its policies on legal aid and access to justice are stretching the demand for pro bono services to breaking point. A leader who will put the spotlight on how, despite under-funding, pro bono is gallantly attempting to fill the hole in the provision of publicly-funded legal services, and who will have the courage to challenge the Government by telling them that if they are really interested in supporting pro bono then perhaps they would like to plough some of their legal aid savings back into community pro bono projects.
But let's not shoot the messenger. Instead, let's praise him for his achievements and, at the same time, encourage him to get tough with the Government and with the Law Society on their lacklustre support for pro bono. After all, pro bono is the jewel in the crown of the profession. It deserves to be made to sparkle.