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It was in the middle of Ramadan and nine days before Christmas 2001 when Martin Edwards, a planning and public law barrister at 39 Essex Street, came across an interesting case from the Bar Pro Bono Unit. The community of Whitefields in East Lancashire was the subject of a compulsory purchase order issued by Pendle Borough Council. The council planned to demolish 450 Victorian stone houses for regeneration, breaking up the area's well-integrated White and Pakistani community. As Edwards puts it: "They wanted to kick out the locals and bring in the yuppies."
The residents were given only six weeks to prepare for an inquiry. With fellow member of chambers Christiaan Zwart, Edwards took the matter before the inquiry on behalf of the Whitefield Conservation Group. The team won the first hearing, with Inspector Henry Asquith rejecting the council's application for a compulsory purchase order. But the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, ordered a fresh inquiry into Pendle Council's scheme. A year later, Edwards and Zwart once again headed up to Lancashire. In the final inquiry earlier this year, Edwards' closing submissions were rewarded with a round of applause. "That's never happened before," he said. "Normally people boo and tell me to shut up." The compulsory purchase order has now been lifted and the homes have been saved. No wonder Edwards speaks of the matter as "the most satisfying case I've ever worked on".
With 58 members and 18 QCs, 39 Essex Street is a heavyweight among public law sets. The fiercely guarded independence of the bar ensures that pro bono is rarely compulsory. At 39 Essex Street, as in most sets, each barrister determines their own level of commitment. The set boasts a strong commitment to pro bono. Members spend on average 20 hours a year on pro bono matters, often incurring their own expenses in the process. Among the chief participants, Edwin Glasgow QC is active in human rights matters, and is a regular visitor to South Africa, where he assists with advocacy and judicial training. At the other end of the spectrum, juniors take employment cases for the Free Representation Unit. The bulk of pro bono work, however, is for the Bar Pro Bono Unit, with cases ranging from Court of Appeal matters to less glamorous but equally important tribunal hearings. Nine members of chambers also assist on the helpline run by human rights charity Liberty. Elsewhere, members with environmental law expertise advise the Environmental Law Foundation.
The Lawyer verdict
A round of applause at the end of closing submissions is a rare result in a case. The vast majority of pro bono work is thankless. Not to be deterred, some 1,500 barristers across the UK are active for the Bar Pro Bono Unit, with at least 35 barristers from 39 Essex Street among them. The commitment of individuals in the set to the pro bono cause is to be applauded, as are chambers-wide initiatives such as involvement in legal advice for the Liberty helpline.