The City and legal aid

At The Lawyer we very rarely write about the legal aid sector. But many commercial lawyers who have never set foot in a law centre are increasingly alarmed at the effect of the Carter review on access to justice.

This was behind the unprecedented move last week by 28 major commercial firms, which together sent a letter of rebuke to the Lord Chancellor.

It was short and to the point. The letter stated: “We do demonstrate our commitment to justice through significant amounts of pro bono work, helping individuals, communities and voluntary organisations across the country – helping sometimes to plug the gaps already left by legal aid.

“The current proposals mean that it simply will not make commercial sense for solicitors to take on legal aid. Committed as our legal aid colleagues are to public service, they will be forced to leave the sector. We urge you to reconsider your plans and safeguard the future of this vital public service.”

This is hardly inflammatory stuff. But there were several prominent City firms that did not sign, including Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, Simmons & Simmons and Slaughter and May.

Freshfields, which appears entirely oblivious to the advantages of collective action, claims it is going to be writing its own letter with a ‘different nuance’.

Simmons admitted that it may not have responded formally , but said: “We believe the Law Society’s campaign to be a worthwhile one and support its efforts to safeguard the future of legal aid.”

Linklaters and Slaughters, meanwhile, claim that they had only seen the letter late in the day. A Linklaters spokesperson said: “While we understand the aim behind the letter, we didn’t receive the letter in enough time for us to give the issue the full consideration that it merits.”

According to the Law Society, the letter was originally circulated on 19 October, with a deadline of 17 November, so it’s hardly in keeping with the two firms’ usual response times on commercial matters.

Linklaters has a fantastic community affairs programme, but this doesn’t help its positioning; it controversially ditched its trainee placements at non-remunerative organisations the Tate and Liberty last year, citing too much M&A work.

The unavoidable conclusion is that these major City organisations were scared of rocking the boat. But doing pro bono work is in itself a political act. It’s a shame Freshfields, Linklaters, Simmons and Slaughters didn’t see the bigger picture.