I am in a unique (and fortunate) position to be CEO of Advocate in this, its 25th anniversary year. Fortunate because our service is more necessary now in the unusual times we’re living through, and unique in that it’s a role I’ve held before, but when the organisation and the needs it met felt completely different.

Humble beginnings

Back in 1996, Peter Goldsmith QC (as he was then) founded the Bar Pro Bono Unit, recognising that, despite the existence of legal aid, people were falling through the gaps:

I had the idea when I was Chair of the Bar in 1995. Then when I finished, I wrote a lot of letters to the Bar, asking whether people would be willing to join us. We found some rooms in Gray’s Inn. We raised some money to hire an administrator and got a few people to help with the vetting. We had 350 signed up from the outset, both juniors and silks. It didn’t surprise me because there is such a level of professionalism at the Bar.

Initially started as a clearing house to funnel appropriate work to volunteer barristers, this is essentially what Advocate – albeit with a new name – still does 25 years later, but on a much larger scale. Now we have almost 4,500 volunteers on our panel (a quarter of the Bar) and one of the things we are most focused on is increasing our engagement with them and encouraging those who have yet to take a case to become regular, active members.

Current challenges

In the recent Bar Council Working Lives survey, 77% of barristers who do pro bono say that the biggest barrier is finding the time alongside their paid practice, which is why we are determined to help make it easier. We continue to authorise pieces of work on a step-by-step basis, with no expectation of continued involvement in a case, and we ask for a commitment of only three days a year.

In addition, this year we established Collaborate, a mentoring scheme in which over 100 senior barristers have volunteered to answer case-based queries from juniors taking a piece of work. At the same time, we are delighted that many chambers continue to embed a culture of pro bono by pointing out the career benefits it can have for both junior and senior members of the Bar. There are lots of ways to give time, from mentoring through to volunteering for one of our partner schemes, like CLIPS, ELAAS, ELIPS and PILARS, all of which ask for only one day at a time.

We are also using the money generously donated through practising certificate renewal to grow the casework team and invest in technology that will enable us to provide more support to barristers when they take on work with us, and we depend on these donations for survival.

Before March 2020, cases had to be referred to Advocate through an advice agency. Since the first lockdown, we’ve been accessible directly by members of the public and our applicants are even more vulnerable and desperate than before. Shyam Popat, our Head of Casework explains that:

Daily we receive hundreds of emails from applicants who struggle to process digital information and as a result, the casework team is spending large parts of the day helping people through our application process.’

In 2020, we received 3,847 requests for help, and placed a record 1,412 pieces of work with our panel members. Of the requests that we couldn’t assist with, most were simply lacking all the information needed to complete the application. This highlights one of our most prevalent problems: the devastation of the frontline advice sector by the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased vulnerability of people in need of the Bar’s pro bono help.

This year alone, our volunteer barristers have helped an Eritrean minor win his asylum battle against the Home Office, participated in a last-minute scheme to help people apply for settled status in the UK, assisted a whistleblower to have his case re-heard in an employment tribunal, reunited many parents and children through contact arrangements and prevented a company director from losing everything when he was accused of breaching his duties.

As requests for help increase, we’re tackling this by recruiting more employment reviewers and will be engaging more in other key areas soon. We have also increased capacity in the casework team so that we can continue to provide a service at a time when our applicants are at their most vulnerable.

Looking to the future

As I look back on how far Advocate has come, it’s clear that there is still so much to do. We recently established Young Bar Advocate, an Executive Committee of young lawyers to help steer our future activities and we have plans underway to increase the number of cases placed, provide better support for volunteers, and create a more personal service for both our applicants and volunteers. Key to our ambition is to continue to deepen our relationship with the Bar and to raise awareness of the variety of pro bono work across the profession and to highlight it to the public at large.

We are also constantly seeking opportunities to work with our partners in the access to justice sector and beyond. Whether this is strengthening relationships with referral agencies and other charities, to looking into how we can harness the enthusiastic students in university law clinics to help ease our application process. Innovation is the key to our future ability to thrive.

As part of our 25th anniversary celebrations, we launched the 25 for 25 Pro Bono Challenge. This is the opportunity to undertake 25 hours of pro bono work in our 25th year, expiring in June 2022. It is a chance to recognise and highlight the broad variety of the profession’s contribution to society. The volunteering need not be done through Advocate and we welcome engagement with our pro bono partners like law centres, partner schemes, other charities, legal advice clinics, mentoring junior barristers and reviewing Advocate cases. In return, we’ll celebrate you and give you a logo to use on your chambers profile or email signature. Please sign up on our website if you fancy the challenge.

I’m in agreement with Peter Goldsmith when he says:

I was bowled over at the time by the willingness of the Bar to do this and I remain bowled over. I’ve seen people take on much more than the commitment they signed up for because they want to help someone. Doing pro bono is part of being a professional, that’s why I think it should be done.

We would not exist without the generosity of the Bar. We were created by the Bar 25 years ago and we are sustained by them to this day. Every barrister has the chance to make a contribution to our growth, whether financial (when renewing your practising certificate) or by offering your time. I hope you feel it’s an investment worth making.