One of the many things that you never expect to hear from your clerk is “How do you fancy spending winter in Jamaica, sir?”. Camberwell Green maybe, but the Caribbean definitely not. But when this is followed up by the news that your chambers would like to help cover your expenses, then you know that you have overslept again.
Dream or not, the face of pro bono work is definitely changing and in this Latin-free era of Lord Woolf it seems to be truly adopting its quintessentially English meaning of “for good”, or perhaps “for better” would sound slightly less sanctimonious, and significantly less smacking of virtuous charity.
The Caribbean Pro Bono Scheme is part of this new approach and is rapidly establishing itself as one of the best organised and most successful programmes aimed at providing long-term assistance to third world jurisdictions. It is designed to send young practitioners to work in Kingston for a period of up to three months and, given the interest that it has received, it would appear that the prospect of a beach-based practice is not without its attractions.
I spent the first three months of this year over there and my time was split between the offices of the Kingston Legal Aid Clinic and the Jamaican Counsel for Human Rights. Each organisation aims, within its limited resources, to provide legal representation for those who have no money and in Jamaica there are plenty that qualify.
The purpose of my trip was to provide assistance, as a junior, to any member of either office who was involved in a capital murder trial, be it at first instance or at appellate level.
This left me carrying out the simplest aspects of case preparation, through to the drafting of affidavits, the preparation of skeleton arguments and searching for potential defence witnesses.
None may appear particularly arduous but when one remembers what is at stake, the pressure and the responsibility can prove to be more than expected. Fortunately, however, the sink or swim approach is avoided. The programme comes with a support network so if all else fails there must, or at least there should, be someone who knows the answer. Even if some of the old ideals of “pupillage” may have lost some of their impact now that pressures of work at all levels in chambers have taken their toll, one can still be confident that, when it really matters, one can always turn to a more experienced colleague, for guidance or even for comfort.
For many at the bar, the opportunities of working in a foreign jurisdiction are few and far between but when they present themselves they should be embraced. The benefits that any volunteer should expect to be able to provide are obvious; in any system where insufficient government funding leads to a shortage of those who can provide legal assistance to the poor, an extra willing, and it is to be hoped able, pair of hands is gratefully received. But what is more striking, and less obvious, is what the volunteer gains. If – and as lawyers we should be – we are motivated to act where we see injustice and where we believe that human rights are threatened, then no matter how small the contribution may have been and how much we succeed in affecting the final outcome, the lesson stays with you forever.
The days in which the phrase “pro bono” causes one to run for cover, either because of the prospect of yet another embarrassing confrontation with an increasingly impatient bank manager or through innate distaste for Victorian charity, are, one hopes, drawing to a close. It is no longer the remit of the luckless pupil or the wealthy tenant. It is the opportunity of a lifetime and I would certainly not have missed it, even if the memories of the less acceptable faces of a society which still believes in an Old Testament approach to crime and punishment, and the reflecting faces and smells of despair in the tiny airless cells of death row will live with me forever.
Oliver Glasgow is a tenant at 1 Hare Court.