A changed landscape

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As Rebecca Wilkie steps down as Chief Executive of the Bar Pro Bono Unit, she reflects upon her time there, the Unit’s development and the changed pro bono landscape

Eight years after taking up the privileged post of Chief Executive at the Bar Pro Bono Unit, the pro bono landscape has changed beyond recognition. 


Thanks to the Bar, the charity quadrupled the number of people it assisted in 2014 compared with the number assisted in 2007, and halved the cost per case.

The Bar Pro Bono Unit is a national charity matching members of the public who cannot afford legal help with barristers who are willing to donate their time and expertise. Now handling over 2,100 cases a year, it is the only provider of pro bono barrister expertise in every legal specialism, at every level of experience, across England and Wales. It does so through a volunteer panel of more than 3,600 barristers (including one third of all QCs). A rigorous review process is in place, undertaken on a regular basis by 120 senior members of the Bar to ensure barristers are only asked to give their time for free in deserving cases where the person cannot access advice or representation in any other way.

One of the most significant developments over the past eight years was the 2010 opening of the National Pro Bono Centre on Chancery Lane. It drew together the national legal charities from the three strands of the profession – the Bar Pro Bono Unit, LawWorks (formerly the Solicitors’ Pro Bono Group) and the CILEx Pro Bono Trust. Hot desking facilitated the development of new initiatives. Today eight different organisations are based in the Centre, drawing the legal profession together in their work in the public interest. The Centre now attracts international delegations interested in pro bono provision and as a result the Unit has advised several different countries on establishing a similar service overseas, sharing lessons learned, systems and best practice.

The effect of the cuts

On the home front, since the legal aid cuts took effect in 2013, the Unit has seen a 69% increase in requests for help without any additional publicity. It is fair to say that even though everybody knew the extent of change, the level of increased need has nonetheless astounded us. As the Unit requires all those needing help to be referred (principally by advice agencies), we thought that the advice sector would be so hard hit by the cuts that they would not have the capacity to send cases through. This could not have been further from the truth. The level of demand continues to soar and, due to the resource pressures on the advice sector who no longer have time to properly complete our application forms, referrals are of poorer quality. There has also been a significant increase in referrals from MPs, accounting for 16% of referrals in 2014: our second largest referrer after Citizens Advice Bureaux. As a result of the reduced frontline resources, the knock-on effect for the Unit is the need for our caseworkers to provide more emotional support to our applicants themselves, most noticeably those with mental health issues. It is not something that the Unit has traditionally been trained to deal with, but the world of access to justice has changed. We are rapidly trying to engage additional training to enable us to adapt to the changing needs of those we seek to help.

Naturally, the increase in litigants in person has at the same time created additional pressures on the judiciary. In response, a number of duty schemes have now been set up by the Bar to provide on the day assistance for litigants in person, such as that established by the Chancery Bar Association. Coupled with the introduction of new duty schemes, there has been an increased collaboration between pro bono organisations, including the launch of the Support Strategy for Litigants in Person in 2014. A wide variety of well-intentioned self-help guides have been developed, which face the challenge of a readership with a wide range of educational abilities, literacy and language skills. Producing documents accessible to all may risk over-simplifying complex issues and thereby deny litigants the best chance of presenting their case in court.

Two perspectives

Of course in this new legal landscape where an ever increasing burden is placed on pro bono services, we are aware of the criticism from some that pro bono lets the government off the hook and that, in an ideal world, the government should pay for those who cannot afford legal help. But this is not going to happen in the near future. All the while people are losing their homes, children and jobs, going it alone in the intimidating legal system.

Equally, we are realistic: pro bono resources are finite. They have to be used carefully and that is why we put considerable effort into ensuring that the Bar’s capabilities are directed to the most deserving cases.

But there are risks. The goodwill of the Bar may run out. To date I have tended to come across two perspectives: the first, as stated above, that pro bono lets the government off the hook and therefore should not be undertaken; and a second which states that regardless of any political agenda, at the end of the day there is someone facing one of the biggest challenges of their life alone and they need a professional to help them.

No one can afford to be sanctimonious about why people may be doing pro bono – the need is too great and there is a compelling business case for pro bono, particularly for ambitious juniors at the Bar. Providing the volunteer is giving of their best, then we are not bothered about their motivations and if the barrister also has something impressive and important to cite on their application for judicial office or Silk, it is win-win for all... Like it or not, for many members of the public there is nowhere else to turn for help and the Bar’s pro bono contribution, whatever its motivation, is therefore critical for the future of access to justice. The biggest challenge for the Unit will be upscaling its systems that have been tried and tested over 18 years without exhausting limited resources or compromising the quality and reputation of the service or of the profession. On a broader level the pro bono sector must ensure that they continue to communicate – despite the best intentions, there is still the very real risk of duplicating services and efforts must be focused on building on successful models for the delivery of pro bono.

The profession’s commitment

On an international level the state of New York recently introduced a requirement for all New York Bar applicants to do 50 hours of pro bono work in order to be admitted to the Bar. Last year The American Lawyer published not only the top firms in average pro bono hours, but also named and shamed the bottom ten firms. In the UK more than 25 law firms have signed up to a collaborative plan for pro bono which includes a commitment to a voluntary target of 25 pro bono hours per lawyer per year. The Bar has not yet followed suit by publishing pro bono league tables or creating aspirational targets, but at this time there appears no need – barristers continue to impress with their readiness to do pro bono work without fanfare. I feel deeply proud to have represented a profession over the past eight years which shows such a commitment to access to justice, a pride reinforced by the news in March that over half of the Bar had made a financial contribution to the Unit this year through a £30 much-needed donation as part of the authorisation to practise process. I just hope that other professions can be tempted to follow the Bar’s magnificent lead.

Of course in this new legal landscape where an ever increasing burden is placed on pro bono services, we are aware of the criticism from some that pro bono lets the government off the hook

Contributor Rebecca Wilkie, Outgoing Chief Executive of the Bar Pro Bono Unit

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Rebecca Wilkie

Rebecca worked for Hogan Lovells and LawWorks before the BPBU and is on the AG’s National/International Pro Bono Coordinating Committees.