It’s a new chapter for the Bar Pro Bono Unit. After 22 years of providing around 9,000 people with free legal help through the voluntary work of thousands of barristers, the charity changes its name to Advocate this autumn.

Advocate (to rhyme with ‘donate’) will be accompanied by the strapline, ‘Finding free legal help from barristers’, and a fresh face. An additional strapline, ‘The pro bono charity of the Bar’, will be used in communications with the profession; both are intended to emphasise that the Bar is at the heart of what they do.

The charity is no stranger to change. It began as a clearing house in 1996, set up by Lord Goldsmith to coordinate the Bar’s pro bono contribution. It has gone on to encourage collaboration with other branches of the profession, and with the advice sector. It has then played its part in important efforts to approach strategically the provision of access to justice for those without means.

Now it is undergoing significant digital transformation, taking its service online. Amid increased demand (the Personal Support Unit has reported a 520% increase since 2011 in the number of people seeking support in court) digitally literate litigants in person (LiPs) will soon be able to access the Bar’s specialist advice, drafting and representation services directly, freeing up advisers in frontline agencies from the filter/bundle preparation process so that they can focus their limited number of appointments on the most vulnerable people. The online shift will also reduce administration and ease time delays and, for barristers, should make their volunteer experience easier and better supported.

What emerged in the course of planning for the new digital platform was that whilst ‘Bar Pro Bono Unit’ is a clear descriptor for the Bar, for LiPs the name was in fact a barrier. Research showed that less than 40% of those applying for help understood or remembered the Unit’s name. High Court judge Sir Robin Knowles CBE, Chair of Advocate’s Trustee Board, explains the rationale: ‘The public face of the Bar’s service of the public interest through its pro bono work is more important than ever. Advocate is as proud of the words “pro bono” as anyone, and these will still be used, but they are not always understood by the public at first hand.’

They needed a name which was easy to remember, short, inspiring and related to the law. ‘We did lots of testing with LiPs online as well as in person and the name “Advocate” tested well. One person seeking help actually said it made them feel that “someone is standing next to them and speaking up for them”.’

After a competitive tender process Advocate decided to work with Both Associates. The modest costs were met in full by the Legal Education Foundation ‘in another example of the thoughtful and innovative encouragement this grant maker gives’. This was all alongside time freely given by the Bar and within the Unit, and Sir Robin is keen to record ‘the careful, professional and hard work from Mary Dobson and Jess Campbell from the Unit’s senior staff’.

His own involvement with pro bono started young and in 2007 Sir Robin was awarded the CBE for his pro bono legal service: ‘I remember Lord Goldsmith letting me help as the Unit began. I remember the day the world’s first National Pro Bono Centre opened. I remember the first of the now-established national conferences of the Civil Justice Council on access to justice for those without means. I remember many individual moments and cases.’

He has witnessed first-hand how pro bono has changed over the years to become an intrinsic part of the Bar: ‘I think the profession has embraced three things above all. First that pro bono work is part of being a lawyer. Second, that it is important that pro bono contributions are offered through organised channels so that the most can be made of the help that is available. Third, that this is a team effort, including clerks and practice managers as well as barristers.’

This dovetails with the expanded Bar Pro Bono Awards that launched this autumn. ‘There is so much happening that should be recognised,’ says Sir Robin. ‘And if it is, that encourages others. One award wasn’t enough.’ Nominees are being recognised in nine categories, including Young Pro Bono Barrister of the Year, Pro Bono Chambers of the Year and International Pro Bono Barrister of the Year as well as Pro Bono Chambers’ Staff Member of the Year.

National Pro Bono Week, set up in 2001, is also re-cast – and is now part of Global Pro Bono Week (22-27 October). Advocate will also participate in the new Justice Week (29 October-2 November) which aims to create a national conversation about justice, expand the rule of law’s ‘public face’ and highlight the work undertaken every day by individual legal practitioners supporting the justice system – particularly pro bono.

Advocate has worked with the Bar through the fee cuts, LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) and court reform to understand how these sometimes dramatic changes affect their ability to engage in free work. ‘We recognise the pressures faced by a portion of the Bar, also now set against a backdrop of headline-making failures in access to justice, such as the Grenfell Tower disaster and the Windrush scandal, and this has driven our decision to make changes. Our colleagues in frontline agencies are stretched beyond belief through local authority funding cuts and, as they aim to signpost and refer more people to us, they need the information to be easily understood by clients,’ says Sir Robin.

‘The Bar still wants to volunteer; we have seen an increase in our volunteer panel numbers and in the number of people helped throughout 2018 and we must get better at supporting this effort. A more open and modern brand offers barristers a platform for their contribution to be more widely recognised and valued.’

That the Bar continues to work pro bono within the context of what’s now widely accepted as a broken and chronically under-funded legal aid system is testament to its deep-rooted commitment. The overdue Ministry of Justice review of LASPO is excruciatingly awaited by the pro bono sector, advice sector and the professions alike.

Lord Justice Wilson delivered a number of hammer blows on the topic during his speech to the Northwestern University Law School in Chicago (25 September 2018 Our Human Rights: A Joint Effort?). Blaming ‘pursuit of economic policy’ he criticised the government’s systematic undoing of ‘much of our precious system of legal aid’. He paid tribute to the ‘very able advocates’ who regularly do pro bono in the Supreme Court. ‘Particularly when they are asserting human rights against a public authority, they nobly appear pro bono, or for a small fee under the attenuated legal aid scheme; and it constantly offends me that it should be necessary for them to do so.’

In a justice system under threat, pro bono is no sticking plaster, agrees Sir Robin: ‘When the LASPO cuts came I remember thinking thank heavens people have Advocate and other pro bono and advice charities. And I remember and celebrate the huge privilege of working with staff and trustees and practitioners towards some reduction of those who do not get the quality of access to justice that they should.’

‘[But] none of this has altered the fundamental point, now accepted by all, that pro bono legal services can only ever be an adjunct to, and never a substitute for, a proper system of publicly funded legal assistance.’

The lower courts are full of LiPs representing themselves often ‘very ineptly’ (the words of Wilson LJ), and Sir Robin is acutely aware of the problems: ‘If you believe in the importance of the justice system then you will want to ensure that it is not closed to those without means. No-one knows as well as a barrister that it is not realistic to evaluate or present some cases without the expertise the Bar has. Whatever the situation with public funding there will always be a need for the Bar’s pro bono contribution. It is the right thing to do.

There are other gains. ‘This work truly connects the profession to the public. Thinking of wellbeing, a pro bono case can be the one that delivered a level of satisfaction not experienced elsewhere. It is to be celebrated that the work can develop experience, whether of practice, or people, or diversity, and more.

‘I also hope that the Bar will develop its offer of “unbundled” affordable, paid-for, legal services (often on a direct access basis) so that those who can afford to pay for a key piece of help (perhaps an advice, or written submissions, or oral representation at a particular hearing) can do so. This all helps ensure that pro bono help can be reserved for and targeted where it is needed most.’

Representation is pivotal to a case’s outcome, which every member of the profession knows, and ‘every judge too’ says Sir Robin. ‘It is not just the legal expertise and experience. It is the objectivity. I have handled hearings in all fields of law. There are things that the judge can do, and these are increasingly recognised, shared and accepted. But nothing makes the difference like representation.’

The 2018 Bar Pro Bono Awards are announced on 24 October.

In a nutshell

  • The Bar Pro Bono Unit is changing its name to Advocate and launching a new online platform:
  • 150 senior barristers currently volunteer to review all cases received for eligibility; merit as well as means-testing.
  • Almost 4,000 barristers are on the volunteer panel; Advocate needs active volunteers across all specialisms.
  • 88 chambers have appointed a Pro Bono Champion so far, under a chambers representation scheme launched to improve panel engagement;
  • Just under 50% of the Bar gives £30 to support Advocate at practising certificate renewal time. Most gift-aid their donation, making it worth 25% more.
  • In its 22 years Advocate has worked to connect the Bar to the most vulnerable in society, playing a role to support people involved in the Grenfell Tower disaster, and helping thousands of people with problems big and small.