A plea for pro bono

As courts re-open and barristers' diaries begin to fill back up, the need for pro bono will skyrocket as Advocate's applicants try to untangle the devastating mess caused by COVID-19. By Shyam Popat

Back in April, I wrote an article for Counsel about how Advocate had managed to take its services online and praising the Bar for its fabulous response to lockdown by signing up to help take pro bono cases. In the months since then, we have witnessed much enthusiasm for our work and been overwhelmed by how quickly pieces of advice, drafting and remote representation have been snapped up and tackled by our eager team of loyal volunteer barristers.

Our statistics demonstrate how hard at work the dedicated Advocate team has been. At the six-month mark of 2020, we had placed 772 pieces of work – a 124% increase on last year. These figures, taken together with the 324 brand new barrister sign-ups we've had since January, puts us in as strong a position as we've been for a long time. But dark clouds loom on the horizon.

Employment: It used to be that case that Advocate received many more family cases than any other area of law. But that has changed in the last few months and family cases are now neck-and-neck with employment enquiries. As the furlough scheme winds up, the public's worry now is clearly shifting towards redundancy. Citizens Advice reported that it has seen a 199% increase in redundancy enquiries than in the same period last year. On 5 July 2020, HMRC reported that 9.4 million jobs had been furloughed, by 1.1 million companies at a total cost to the government of £27.4 billion. With numbers as large as this, and the government clearly recognising the problem by proposing to give companies a 30-day grace period in which to report misuse of the furlough scheme, we fear that the number of these complaints will be depressingly high.

Family: Family has always been Advocate's most in-demand area of law, and also the most difficult one in which to place cases – demand simply outstrips supply. There has been a rise in the number of applicants on both sides of broken child contact arrangements: those refusing access to their children and those being refused it as a result of the lockdown. And if the UK follows Wuhan and experiences a rise in divorce cases, this particular battleground will become even more bloody.

This has inspired one of our caseworkers to set up a scheme whereby barristers agree to be on a rota and offer emergency advice in cases for which we have been unable to secure barrister representation. It's a mere drop in the ocean compared to the demand but we hope it will be a flexible way for interested counsel to offer a little of their time pro bono.

Housing: Usually Advocate's third most busy area of law, housing has been eerily quiet for the last few months due to the government's temporary stay on evictions. We know from experience that there are thousands of private renters who are at risk of losing their homes when the stay is lifted. In the last few weeks, we've started to witness an increase in the number of applicants requesting housing assistance and this will grow exponentially in the near future.

We worried at the beginning of the pandemic what would happen to our clients and whether they would still be able to get access to the legal advice they so desperately need. We have been humbled by all the efforts of barrister colleagues and friends who have assisted our applicants during these times.

It feels ironic that in an article five years ago, I praised the Bar for 'braving the legal aid storm' and ensuring that those without means were still able to get access to justice. Five years later, we ask the same again. You have done so much for our applicants, but now they need us more. As Courts face a backlog crisis and advice agencies are stretched to breaking point, we need the Bar to continue to battle on as you have always bravely done and continue to help our clients. Behind every case there is an individual who needs specialist advice and we are often their last resort. As we return to a 'new normal' we hope and ask that you please do continue to take on pro bono cases, because together we can make a difference to the lives of so many.

My thanks for all you have done during the pandemic and also over the last 24 years of the charity’s existence. We all look forward to working with you and together braving yet another storm.

Any family law barrister wishing to join the new scheme should contact Aaqib Javed at familyscheme@weareadvocate.org.uk.


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Shyam Popat

Shyam Popat is Chief Operating Officer and Head of Casework at Advocate (the new name of the Bar Pro Bono Unit): weareadvocate.org.uk.