City firms to assist Foreign Office in pro bono drive

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) will contact UK lawyers this week and ask them to join a new panel giving pro bono advice to British prisoners overseas.

The scheme has already been showcased to members of the Solicitors’ Pro Bono Group (SPBG), including all the magic circle firms.
Lawyers will be asked to give the FCO varying levels of advice. They may be asked to work with local lawyers acting for British prisoners overseas, or to advise the FCO whether to support individual pleas made by British prisoners abroad.
The scheme is a joint effort from the FCO and charity lobbying group Prisoners Abroad. Lovells pro bono officer Yasmin Waljee will also provide help and advice to the collaboration.
“This is a first for us,” said Carlo Laurenzi, chief executive officer of Prisoners Abroad. “We’ve been lobbying the Government and the corporate sector to work with us for a long time. We’ll achieve much more working together than we would individually.”
The scheme was set up on the back of a new Government commitment, announced last month, to extend support for the pleas of British prisoners abroad. The scheme cannot interfere with foreign countries’ own sentencing laws, but Laurenzi hopes it will help iron out existing sentencing anomalies.
“Take Sandra Gregory,” said Laurenzi. “This was a British woman convicted in Thailand of carrying a small amount of heroin. She received a sentence only marginally shorter than the one handed out to Rose West in the UK. This is nonsensical. This scheme could help redress the balance.”
The FCO has also presented the scheme to the Bar Pro Bono Unit and the Criminal Bar Association, although it is unclear the extent to which cash-strapped criminal sets will be able to participate.
“We’ll certainly be happy to provide pro bono advice to the FCO,” said Will Whitford, senior clerk at leading criminal set Hollis Whiteman Chambers. “But if the FCO wants criminal barristers to visit foreign countries on its behalf, it’ll have to pay their air fares.”
An FCO spokesperson said: “Expenses will be decided on a case-by-case basis.”