#IDoProBono

Lawyers hiding their light under a bushel? Yes, you heard it here first. Advocate persuaded a group of committed pro bono barristers to celebrate their #IDoProBono work during Volunteers’ Week


Counsel  to hear that barristers that do pro bono are unusually shy about shouting about their contribution to access to justice. Those who believe deeply in pro bono are often the ones who quietly, and determinedly, take case after case. It’s not necessarily the high profile cases they help with but, importantly, those everyday pieces of drafting or carefully communicated negative advice. For distressed members of the public, who have never had anyone with legal expertise take the time to explain why they don’t  have a case, our volunteer barristers make a difference to their lives. This difference saves them from the terror of court, while simultaneously benefiting the justice system in terms of time and resources.

"A quarter of the Bar are signed up to our volunteer panel (including 85% of all QCs), but only 12% of that panel actually took on pro bono work in 2018."

Lawyers, as far as I can find out, have rarely been celebrated in Volunteers’ Week. Founded and championed by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the week offers us a chance to thank some of those unsung heroes, as well as to shine a light on the impact that pro bono has on the barristers themselves. A quarter of the Bar are signed up to our volunteer panel (including 85% of all QCs), but only 12% of that panel actually took on pro bono work in 2018. Many panel members signed up long ago, and some will have forgotten the logistics of how to take on pro bono through Advocate:

  • it is unbundled work;
  • there is a choice to take on each piece of work;
  • solicitor, junior barrister or QC assistance can be requested; and
  • panel members now receive a weekly, fortnightly or monthly list of cases specifically matched to your legal expertise.

Although only 12% of our panel volunteered their time in 2018, that help collectively meant £2.25 million in fees – had they charged.

Please enjoy reading the stories of some of our panel members here. We are so proud of what they do, and honoured to be a part of making their life-changing contribution possible.


Colm Nugent, Hardwicke Chambers

At what stage in your career did you take on your first pro bono case?

My first pro bono case was within my first few years of practice so – roughly 20 years ago. It was, as I recall, a fairly hopeless employment tribunal claim. I had experience of pro bono work with the Free Representation Unit, even when I was in Bar school. I felt more ‘exposed’ than anything because I wasn’t there via a solicitor and all the client interaction was direct rather than via an intermediary. My first Court of Appeal pro bono case was nerve-racking but the court plainly welcomed pro bono assistance and couldn’t have been nicer.

Why did you decide to undertake pro bono work?

Lawyers and barristers are in a unique position to help others to have a voice and we should be prepared to use our skills and status to do just that.

What was the most memorable case you worked on, and what did you do?

I was working with a client who had been desperately trying for 10 years to overturn a Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority decision. I was matched with him through Advocate, and together we finally managed to get his money – over £100,000. We had to fight every step of the way and eventually, we did it. The struggle put him in hospital, though.

What effect did pro bono work have on your career?

Pro bono work gave me a much greater insight into the amount of preparatory work that goes into a case by solicitors before I normally ever see it. This really helps when arguing about costs in a cost and case management conference – and understanding client priorities in conferences.

It’s brought me before Tribunals and panels I probably would never have experienced otherwise and as a consequence gave me the confidence that comes with a wider set of advocacy skills.

What is the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work?

The sense of achievement.

What advice would you give to any barrister unsure about whether to start doing pro bono work?

Try to imagine if you didn’t have a voice, if you didn’t have the skills and abilities to argue your corner, or fight for what you thought was right. Those are the people who need us to be their voice.


Deborah Tompkinson, Clerksroom

At what stage in your career did you take on your first pro bono case?

While a pupil, through the Free Representation Unit.

Why did you decide to undertake pro bono work?

To gain experience originally but later (and now) because I could see how desperately it was needed.

What was the most memorable case you worked on, and what did you do?

A client with learning and mental health difficulties was defending allegations which would, in a criminal court, have amounted to a cunning fraud. I learned two very valuable things. First, the disgracefully unjust impact on access to justice of the removal of civil legal aid. She lived in a substantial county town south of London, where access to justice was extremely scarce. The legal aid application form was too long, too complex, and wholly unfit for use by a person who was illiterate. The Exceptional Cases Funding Unit turned her down on the grounds that as she had a barrister she had ‘pro bono funding’(sic).

Second, I undertook vulnerable witnesses training to gain a greater understanding of her needs and how to help. Since there was no legal aid, I could not get her an independent expert, so I obtained civil procedure rules compliant evidence from her treating specialist which both explained her vulnerabilities, and recommended the adjustments that would need to be made to enable her to give best evidence in court.

I could then guide her through a mediation with the other side, having introduced them to the novelty of the Advocate’s Gateway Toolkits for Vulnerable Witnesses. The case against her was discontinued at an early stage. That was my primary objective because it was what my client most needed. However, she remained involved as a witness. I continued to act as an amicus curiae, to present the case for her needs as a witness at a case management conference and later at pre-trial review, where a truly wonderful circuit judge, who clearly knew the initiative for vulnerable witnesses, made all the necessary orders to limit cross-examination so as to enable her to give best evidence.

What with there being no money for an intermediary, I agreed to attend to assist her and the court (it is important for vulnerable witnesses to have a trusted person in court, not just for support, but to watch for signs of distress). Although a barrister is not an intermediary, the judge considered that even an unqualified friendly face in court was better than nothing. On the day of trial, the remaining defendant conceded that he would not seek to cross-examine her, sparing her the ordeal. At the end of this case, I had learned a lot and developed a number of very unorthodox tactics in order to achieve the result my client needed.

What effect did pro bono work have on your career?

It introduced me early to the vulnerable witnesses initiative (which is not something that is yet well-known among general civil counsel). It has made me reassess my approach to aspects of my advocacy, which I believe has improved as a result. It has also handed me a tool that can be used both tactically and operatively to promote a more level playing field and greater justice for clients who might otherwise suffer injustice because of a lack of awareness of their vulnerabilities.

What is the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work?

Knowing that one has helped someone who might otherwise not have achieved justice.

What advice would you give to any barrister unsure about whether to start doing pro bono work?

Just do it. The need is acute. Pick something simple and in your own area of practice, if possible, to start with. Move on to something more difficult as you gain confidence. If in doubt – for example, as to whether a case is really suitable for pro bono work – do not hesitate to contact the Advocate reviewer who approved it in the first place. They often have to take a decision on less material that is eventually available to you.


Dr S Chelvan, No5 Chambers

At what stage in your career did you take on your first pro bono case?

From my second-six months in pupillage in 2000 – instructed by Bail for Immigration Detainees for bail applications for migrants detained in immigration detention.

Why did you decide to undertake pro bono work?

Every single one of us should have a right to legal representation – especially where life and liberty are at stake.

What was the most memorable case you worked on, and what did you do?

The impact of a simple ‘thank you’ from a client who has previously been let down and isolated by others make my cases most memorable – highlighting why it is so important to be change-makers.

What effect did pro bono work have on your career?

Pro bono work fills the void created by politicians as a consequence of funding cuts and structural barriers to legal aid and access to justice.

What is the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work?

Pro bono work underpins why I became a barrister – ‘to be the mouthpiece for those who know the words – but have no voice’.

What advice would you give to any barrister unsure about whether to start doing pro bono work?

Your first pro bono case is the start of a life long journey where you provide the sword and shield to those who rely on you to provide advice, clarity and solutions.


Anthony Pavlovich, 3 Verulam Buildings

At what stage in your career did you take on your first pro bono case?

It was while I was still studying for the Bar. I was looking to gain advocacy experience in a real case in front of a real judge.

Why did you decide to undertake pro bono work?

To gain useful experience.

What was the most memorable case you worked on, and what did you do?

This case was a year or two ago. The client sued for money owed under an oral loan agreement. She was simultaneously threatened with bankruptcy. After a four-day trial, the client obtained a judgment and the bankruptcy proceedings were then disposed of by consent.

What effect did pro bono work have on your career?

Pro bono work has helped me to gain experience that I’d otherwise not have got so soon in my career, as well as raising my profile with others in the legal profession.

What is the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work?

Pro bono cases often give me a bigger opportunity to make a difference to my clients’ lives than paying cases.

What advice would you give to any barrister unsure about whether to start doing pro bono work?

The benefits are obvious so there’s no need to be unsure.


Andrew Walker QC, Maitland Chambers

At what stage in your career did you take on your first pro bono case?

A few years into practice.

Why did you decide to undertake pro bono work?

My first pro bono was when I learned my client’s full story. Life had dealt him a terrible blow, and I could make a small contribution to getting his family back on their feet by not charging him. My first ‘proper’ pro bono was when someone was needed, I was free for a hearing, and the case sounded deserving. I just said ‘yes’. It seemed the right thing to do.

What was the most memorable case you worked on, and what did you do?

The case was the one which led to my winning the Bar Pro Bono Award. It was, in practice, the first significant piece of pro bono work that I did, as it involved every stage in the case from the initial possession hearing. It was in 2009, so I was a senior junior by then, as I took silk less than two years later. It was a mortgage possession claim, in which the clients had sold their home to a ‘sale and rent back’ organisation, and been granted a tenancy in return, which they thought would continue for the rest of their lives. The buyer had borrowed money to buy their house, but then failed to pay the mortgage, hence the mortgage possession claim.

We were able to establish that their tenancy – and some promises made to them – was binding on the mortgage company, and put them in the position of being able to stay indefinitely, so long as they could continue to pay. It was the only case of this sort, I think, to succeed. Subsequent cases were taken up to the Supreme Court but in those cases, the mortgagees won, so my clients were rather fortunate. If the same case arose now, I suspect they might lose. We also secured the first substantial (not the very first) pro bono costs order – £20,000 if my memory serves me – and I believe that this was paid.

What effect did pro bono work have on your career?

It helped me to broaden my understanding of my clients’ perspectives and needs, to be less afraid of taking on a case without a solicitor, and to appreciate the extent to which, what I might think is straightforward law, can be confusing, intimidating and overwhelming for clients.

What is the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work?

Giving those who deserve our help the reassurance and confidence to deal with their situation that comes with having been listened to and given an explanation of what is happening that they can understand; and even more so when I can help to change the outcome for the better.

What advice would you give to any barrister unsure about whether to start doing pro bono work?

Talk to someone who has done it. Perhaps even do your first case jointly. There is much less to worry about than you might think.


Sian Smith, 42 Bedford Row

At what stage in your career did you take on your first pro bono case?

Around two years into practice.

Why did you decide to undertake pro bono work?

I am a family practitioner and it has always been the case, even before the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, that there are vulnerable individuals who need legal representation but simply cannot afford it.

To many people the courts can seem an intimidating and alien environment, the law can appear confusing and inaccessible. They need help to access justice; I can help. It’s as simple as that really.

What was the most memorable case you worked on, and what did you do?

Without a doubt, my most memorable case is also my most recent case; not least because I was involved for nearly four years. I represented a father engaged in a very long-running and complex private law dispute. It would be impossible to do the case justice by trying to summarise it here. I represented my client at two lengthy final hearings and two appeals to the Court of Appeal.

Private law children proceedings can be complex and protracted and it can be very difficult for litigants in person to put their case effectively without a lawyer. I was able to assist my client in court to ensure that he was not disadvantaged by a lack of legal representation.

What effect did pro bono work have on your career?

Undertaking pro bono work gave me my first opportunity to appear in the Court of Appeal which was a daunting and exhilarating experience. It has given me greater confidence in undertaking appellate work for which I am very grateful.

What is the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work?

I think that the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work is knowing that you are alleviating the heavy burden of acting as a litigant in person. Family proceedings by their nature always involve emotional issues that can make it difficult for clients to know what their best points are, or to identify the more important aspects of the evidence.

Often they do not know where to start when faced with presenting their case in court. By simply stepping into the process we can help clients to better understand their case and the court’s approach which can hugely reduce their apprehension about the proceedings. Committing to representing a client in court can have a significant and positive impact on their wellbeing as well as on the case outcome.

What advice would you give to any barrister unsure about whether to start doing pro bono work?

In a family justice system that is increasingly under pressure, it is becoming more and more difficult to identify the time in which to undertake pro bono work. However, just giving a small amount of time can make a huge difference in someone’s life. If you are just starting out, pro bono work can help you gain experience in areas of work that you are interested in. Or, like me, it can let you appear in a higher court. I have only benefited personally and professionally from the pro bono work that I have done and I would highly recommend taking a look at the pro bono case list each week. You might be surprised at the difference that you can make.


Derek Spitz, One Essex Court

At what stage in your career did you take on your first pro bono case?

At the outset, during pupillage.

Why did you decide to undertake pro bono work?

Because it is a good thing to do and it is good for career development and personal growth.

What was the most memorable case you worked on, and what did you do?

On a Friday afternoon, towards the end of my pupillage, Chambers received a pro bono request which they were very keen to accept. It required an appearance on fairly short notice. In talking it through with the clerks and my pupil supervisor, it gradually dawned on me that the case involved a hearing in the Court of Appeal!

It involved acting for a couple who had fallen into arrears on a vehicle purchased on credit and insolvency was looming. My pupil supervisor encouraged me to take it on, pointing out that at least one judge in the Court of Appeal had seen enough in the judgment to give permission to appeal. I accepted the case with some trepidation, spent a lot of time preparing and was successful in the appeal. The court was very appreciative that the litigants had received effective representation and the litigants themselves were hugely relieved and wrote a very kind note of thanks afterwards. The clerks joked with me that having had some success in the Court of Appeal, my career could only go downhill from there...

What effect did pro bono work have on your career?

Pro bono work has offered opportunities for oral advocacy that are not always easy to come by, it has enabled me to appear before different judges, and to expand the areas of expertise in which I practise. It has allowed me to balance my commercial practice with other kinds of interesting cases.

What is the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work?

The personal element of pro bono work is most rewarding. There is enormous satisfaction in being able to make a positive impact on the circumstances individuals face in their lives and to do it without fuss or fanfare.

What advice would you give to any barrister unsure about whether to start doing pro bono work?

Start early. The advocacy experience is invaluable. Your clients will benefit immensely. It contributes to a virtuous circle!


Emmanuel Sheppard, 3 Verulam Buildings

At what stage in your career did you take on your first pro bono case?

During my first year of practice.

Why did you decide to undertake pro bono work?

Of course there are the selfish reasons (opportunity for advocacy, more responsibility) and, of course, it is enormously satisfying to help people directly, but to me at least the benefits of pro bono work go somewhat deeper.

It is easy to forget how fortunate we are as lawyers to work in this jurisdiction, where the judiciary is highly respected and where (in the civil field at least) there are few examples of an obviously problematic rule or principle. That makes our job as lawyers considerably easier. It also means we enjoy the privilege of being reasonably sure that once we have done our bit, the case will be fairly resolved.

Unfortunately, so long as litigants are being put off by costs or else unable to present their case properly without a lawyer, that level of certainty drops and access to justice more widely is undermined. In that context, pro bono work seems to me to be an essential part of any practice. It is also (in most cases) a small ‘thank you’ to an overworked and understaffed judiciary, I hope.

What was the most memorable case you worked on, and what did you do?

I have been fortunate in being able to do a relatively wide range of work from an Article 10/free speech matter to employment cases (another advantage of pro bono work). My most memorable is a commercial case with Advocate, where a bank was reclaiming sums from an individual paid to them by mistake – the money had been spent and the bank’s costs more than doubled the claim.

If successful, the claim would have placed my client in serious financial difficulty. The case involved an interesting discussion and application of the estoppel defences to Unjust Enrichment (and their interaction with change of position).

What effect did pro bono work have on your career?

It’s too early to tell – but I anticipate great things. It has also been immensely enjoyable.

What is the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work?

The opportunity to represent someone else’s interests.

What advice would you give to any barrister unsure about whether to start doing pro bono work?

Perhaps, draw up a ‘pro bono business plan’. Most lawyers are convinced of the importance of pro bono work generally.

From my experience of talking to people, the sources of doubt are usually: a) can I afford it; b) what pro bono work will best suit my practice trajectory? Thinking about pro bono work as an arm of your practice may answer those questions.


Simon Milnes, 20 Essex Street

At what stage in your career did you take on your first pro bono case?

While studying for the Bar Vocational Course – through the Free Representation Unit.

Why did you decide to undertake pro bono work?

There really is a special sense of purpose that comes from being of service to people who couldn’t otherwise afford a lawyer. I enjoy my commercial work, but mixing in some days of pro bono makes life bigger, warmer, funnier, and far less predictable. It also involves me in a broader range of work than the specialisms that I do for paying clients.

What was the most memorable case you worked on, and what did you do?

Representing a couple who had been ripped off to the tune of £25,000 in a scam by an estate agent, supposedly to buy properties in Portugal (in fact he just pocketed the money). I worked with the couple to gear up for a trial, helped them with witness statements, bundling and then settlement negotiations, drafting a consent order and subsequent enforcement steps. In the end, the couple got their money back plus costs and interest. But the scammer had apparently done to same to many other people too!

What effect did pro bono work have on your career?

My volunteer work been great for my ‘job satisfaction’ and sense of purpose which carries over into my commercial work. It’s also been an incredible privilege to meet some amazing pro bono clients, including indigenous people in remote areas. I do believe I’ve come back to my commercial work with a refreshed spirit and sense of perspective.

What is the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work?

It’s about knowing the difference that a lawyer can make, guiding clients towards options that protect them and steering them away from traps that can ruin life for unwary people, while respecting their autonomy. Also, you can visibly see pro bono clients relax and come down several levels of stress once they have a lawyer by their side to talk to.

What advice would you give to any barrister unsure about whether to start doing pro bono work?

Look for opportunities close to your existing field, so that you feel on safe ground and can quickly earn clients’ trust.

If you do civil work, consider the Chancery Bar Litigant in Person Support Scheme in the Chancery applications court, as litigants in person really need and appreciate the help. Also, the commitment there is limited to a day at a time, so it’s manageable.

I’ve found it’s harder to predict what will happen in pro bono cases, and getting on top of the facts will usually take more time than in paid work. So be ready for unexpected developments, and perhaps avoid scheduling a pro bono conference right before another appointment!

Consider signing up with Advocates for International Development for international projects.

Consider asking your chambers library to donate to the International Law Book Facility. It sends recent-ish editions to universities, judicial colleges, etc in the developing world, often making the difference between bare shelves and a serviceable, heavily used library.


Brie Stevens-Hoare QC, Hardwicke Chambers

At what stage in your career did you take on your first pro bono case?

In my first year.

Why did you decide to undertake pro bono work?

Even then, I was aware some people were not able to afford the access to justice they deserved.

What was the most memorable case you worked on, and what did you do?

A case that went to the Supreme Court in December 2017, Ilott v Mitson, which went on for seven years. The client’s mother left her estate to three charities when she passed away, and intentionally left nothing to her daughter following years of estrangement. The client made a claim on the estate under the Inheritance Act for its failure to make reasonable provision for her in light of her acute financial needs for her maintenance. The client had had legal aid for the trial and secured an award of £50,000. The charities appealed seeking an order stating that the client was not entitled to any award. Legal aid was no longer available.

The client was then represented pro bono through appeals in the High Court and on up to the Court of Appeal twice, on both the question of entitlement under the Act and then the amount of the award. In the Court of Appeal for the second time, the client’s award was increased to £160,000 which was enough to allow her to exercise a right to buy. Eventually the case went to the Supreme Court where the charities challenged that award. Although the Supreme Court ultimately reinstated the original award of £50,000 out of the £486,000 estate, arrangements were made to allow the client to remain in the property and retain a part of the increased value. In addition, the Court of Appeal’s order that the charities pay the pro bono costs survived. The case attracted a great deal of press interest leading to several articles commenting on the case in the tabloid press.

What effect did pro bono work have on your career?

It had a huge effect. I get more out of it than I put in. When junior, I did cases that were bigger and more interesting than my usual case. It keeps me in touch with some of the key reasons I came to the Bar in the first place, and one of my cases in my application for silk was a pro bono case.

What is the most rewarding thing about doing pro bono work?

You make a real difference in the life of a client who you inevitably get to know very well. If you can also get a pro bono costs order it’s ‘double bubble’ – you have given your time directly and you have raised money for charity/to fund more pro bono work.

What advice would you give to any barrister unsure about whether to start doing pro bono work?

Do it and keep doing it. Throughout my career I have aimed to generally have a pro bono case on the go and have learnt a lot by doing so. It also makes you really appreciate what your instructing solicitors do. 


#IDoProBono

To honour the dedication towards pro bono shown by Advocate’s volunteer barristers, the ‘I Do Pro Bono’ campaign was launched on 3 June 2019.

Ten stories of the charity’s Pro Bono Ambassadors and their pro bono careers went live on the Advocate website, Twitter and LinkedIn, sharing their reasons to do pro bono, their most memorable case, as well as the impact pro bono has had on their practice.

Keep an eye out for the 2018 Chair of the Bar, Andrew Walker QC, and his award-winning pro bono case that resulted in the first substantial cost order, as well as Brie Stevens-Hoare QC’s pro bono Supreme Court appearance.

Want to know how you can help?

  • Join the panel: weareadvocate.org.uk/how-to-help.html. New panel members are invited on a quarterly basis to breakfast in the National Pro Bono Centre; a chance to meet the team and get cracking with those cases!
  • Make sure your set of chambers has its own Pro Bono Champion; weareadvocate.org.uk/probonochampions
  • Request our caseworkers come to your set to host a Pro Bono Seminar. These were held in Blackstone Chambers (Gold Pro Bono Patrons) and 3 Verulam Buildings (Silver Pro Bono Patrons) in Volunteers’ Week and mean your QCs, juniors, clerks and marketing staff can get a better understanding of how we can work together to make it easier for you to take on pro bono work.
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Mary Dobson

 Head of Fundraising and Communications at Advocate (formerly the Bar Pro Bono Unit): weareadvocate.org.uk