Although the concept of pro bono work was embraced in the UK many years ago, lawyers have traditionally been left to offer it on an ad hoc basis and, in contrast to the US, centrally organised pro bono programmes are only just being set up.
The Bar pro bono unit, set up for barristers last June, is still in its infancy, and the solicitors' pro bono group, which aims to encourage solicitors to do pro bono work, has yet to reach even that stage. And a third body, the solicitors' representation unit, remains a twinkle in the Law Society's eye.
But lawyers in the US have been signing up to organised pro bono programmes for several years now and the American Bar Association (ABA) is holding its 15th annual pro bono conference in March.
There are about 950 organised pro bono programmes in the US, many based in legal aid or local Bar Association offices, with about half the states running them state-wide. Many are run on a shoestring but some are multi-million-dollar organisations.
The programmes are usually used to interview and screen potential clients and match them with volunteer attorneys. Many organise experienced mentors to help young attorneys doing pro bono work and offer malpractice insurance for their volunteers.
The ABA pro bono centre, set up in 1981, supports these programmes, issues publications and training material and organises the annual pro bono conference. It runs a peer consultation project which sends teams to local areas to report on how pro bono can be improved or see if a programme is viable. The association also helps barristers who are representing British nationals on death row on a pro bono basis.
Debbie Segal, chair of this year's conference, said that having an organised programme definitely helped. “It makes a positive difference because many people do not have access to law firms.
“Attorneys can choose the types of cases they want to work on and so can learn something new. We also give training for volunteers, we can follow up the cases, make sure attorneys are comfortable with their cases and clients are happy with their representation.”
Bonnie Allen, director of the ABA pro bono centre, agrees. She said fears that effective pro bono programmes would be seen as a cost-cutting alternative to legal aid had been voiced in the US, particularly when the US Congress slashed federal funding for legal services (which represent poor people) last year.
“But there is no evidence that supports the argument that pro bono has in any way replaced the need for legal aid,” said Allen. “Research before the cuts showed that only about 20 per cent of all legal needs were met anyway.
“I think you need both pro bono and legal aid – one should not be competing against the other. We need legal aid attorneys who understand and deal with, on a daily basis, the issues associated with low-income people. Pro bono attorneys can supplement legal aid professionals because they often have specialised skills in, for example, bankruptcy or real estate transactions, which legal aid attorneys do not have.”
A proposed scheme to make pro bono work mandatory in Nevada floundered after strong opposition from local attorneys but most programmes offer incentives to encourage attorneys to take on pro bono work. These include the ABA law firm challenge which encourages legal firms to donate 3-5 per cent of their billable hours to pro bono work.
This year's ABA conference, in St Louis, Missouri, from 13-15 March, will focus on community responses to the legal needs of the poor. For details contact the ABA on 00 1 312 60611 3314.