Already into my third month as Chair of the Bar and, as much as I want to change things for the better, I also want to promote great traditions that stand the test of time. I have always been immensely proud of the Bar’s long-standing commitment to working pro bono – helping out for free, when someone has nowhere else to turn. Without that commitment to pro bono publico – literally, ‘for the public good’ – many of the most vulnerable people would not have a voice, let alone be able to exercise or defend their rights. Many barristers and other lawyers already give their expertise and time freely for clients across all practice areas. In this month’s column, I want to celebrate that work.
Barristers provide pro bono support through different routes, including Advocate (the Bar’s pro bono charity), schemes like CLIPS run by the Chancery Bar Association, where an advocate is on call, on a specified day in court, or working at advice centres or with the Bar Human Rights Committee. Beyond that, barristers often give up their time to help in their community, schools and charities. Almost a quarter of the entire barristers’ profession, about 4,000 barristers (from new tenants to silks), are currently Advocate panel members – putting themselves forward to be matched in specific practice areas, with cases needing legal assistance. In 2018, (the most recent available figures) just through Advocate, barristers clocked up over 10,700 hours of legal help, equating to just under £2.25 million in fees, had they charged.
Demand has never been higher. Fewer and fewer people with legal problems have access to legal aid. Litigants in person who go to court are confronted by real problems identifying the strengths and weaknesses of their case, causing enormous stress and delay across the system. Whilst pro bono is not – and must never be – a substitute for a properly funded justice system, the considerable contribution that we, the Bar, make, results in huge benefits to the public. At the 2019 Pro Bono Awards, we celebrated not just individual barristers who have made a tremendous difference to individual clients but sets of chambers and clerks’ rooms too. All have an important role.
Behind those impressive figures are the true stories of real individuals whose lives have been changed by access to justice. One example from January 2020 is the desperately sad case of Harry Richford. He was the baby who died two years ago, in ‘wholly avoidable’ circumstances, brought about by a catalogue of failures by the hospital. Because the hospital had wrongly described the death as ‘expected’, the coroner was not informed, and no inquest was ordered. Without the help of pro bono barristers and the persistence of his grieving family, no proper determination of the causes of the tragedy, let alone justice, would have been achieved. Our role in enabling this kind of access to justice could not be any more valuable.
The benefits are professional as well as personal: pro bono work keeps your skills sharp and helps to enhance and extend your practice and professional relationships; for several practitioners, their first, perhaps only, instruction before the Supreme Court is pro bono – what an opportunity! For chambers, involvement in pro bono work sends a clear message about a set’s values. The Bar Council is encouraging chambers to take a strategic approach: record the hours and report the great work you do pro bono, as part of chambers social responsibility. Value the work your barristers do pro bono and spread the word! For help, look on our website. Volunteers’ Week in June and Pro Bono Week in November are key dates for your diary, but our Pro Bono and Social Responsibility Committee welcomes your input all year round.
The Attorney General’s office has set up a committee on which we sit, to encourage more applications for Pro Bono Costs Orders. Help can be found in guides by the Access to Justice Foundation and seminars run by Advocate. Another welcome initiative is a service provider directory whose entrants will donate to fund pro bono work. It has the backing of ComBar and the Commercial Court judiciary, amongst others across the legal sector and will be launched on 26 March 2020 as part of the 125th birthday celebrations for the Commercial Court.
So, improve your life and sign up for pro bono work! It is easy to make a £35 donation to Advocate in your Authorisation to Practise renewal this year as well. All who work with them attest to the excellent job they do. Without the Bar’s support, they simply could not carry on.
Yes to the BRF! This month I am highlighting another thing the Bar Representation Fee (BRF) helps fund. March’s spotlight is on our efforts to influence negotiations with the EU on the future relationship, not just with politicians and civil servants, but with Bar Associations and other professional bodies. This matters in terms of access to justice for ordinary citizens and businesses as well as to the ability of barristers to continue to help people with EU aspects to their cases, be they commercial, negligence (such as car accidents abroad) family or criminal cases. We need mutual recognition of judgments and of legal qualifications across Europe. Without your BRF payment, it would be so much harder to get our point across where it counts, for the future benefit of justice generally and for our profession, in particular. As you complete your Authorisation to Practise on MyBar this month, please also tick ‘yes’ to the BRF!