Making a Difference

As the deadline for nominations for the Bar Pro Bono Award 2010 approaches, Georgina Closs asks six previous winners – who have all made an outstanding contribution to pro bono work – what it means to win the Award.

Each year, the Sydney Elland Goldsmith Pro Bono Award recognises the sets of chambers and members of the Bar who have made an outstanding contribution to pro bono work over the course of the year. With the nominations deadline for the 2010 award approaching fast, I interviewed six previous award winners – Andrew Walker, Michael Fordham QC, Keir Starmer QC DPP, Andrew Hall QC, Samantha Knights and Judith Farbey – to gauge their experiences of pro bono work and what it meant to win the Award.


2009 winner: Andrew Walker

Andrew Walker, the 2009 award winner, believes many barristers see working under a Conditional Fee Agreement (“CFA”) as quasi pro bono work, but says that he would rather do a deserving case pro bono than work under a CFA for a less deserving one.

Andrew was nominated for the Award by Shelter’s Children’s Legal Service after he successfully represented a couple who were victims of a “sale and leaseback” scheme (see Redstone Mortgages plc v Welch & Jackson [2009] EG 98). He says he stumbled into the case and didn’t think at the time that it would have any legal impact: “I came up with the best argument I could think of ... It needed expertise in the field in order to make it good.” Andrew was praised by the judges for his commitment and dedication to what turned out to be a long running and extremely complex matter. He says he experienced a sense of satisfaction in giving something back and used expertise from his more junior practice because it was a mortgage related case.


2006 winner: Michael Fordham QC

Michael Fordham QC muses that the main problem with pro bono interventions is that “unless you are going to cheat, you have to do a vast amount of work”.

This does not seem to have put Michael off; in 2006 he was recognised for his “longstanding commitment to pro bono work and regular devotion of an estimated 20 per cent of his billable hours”.

Michael believes pro bono work is a “vocational part of our job” but, like the other interviewees, he is concerned that it is no substitute for a proper system of public funding for litigation.

Nominations from the Public Law Project, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Refugee Legal Centre, Friends of the Earth, and Baker & McKenzie LLP were all unanimous in their agreement of Michael’s thorough preparation of cases and unhesitating generosity of time.


2005 winner: Keir Starmer QC DPP

Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, undertook pro bono work throughout his time as a practitioner. He believes it is a tribute to the Bar that it produces so many individuals willing to work pro bono – more than any other profession.

Keir was the 2005 winner for his committed role in the Simons, Muirhead and Burton “Death Penalty Project” which set about challenging the mandatory death sentence in various common law jurisdictions. Initially acting as Edward Fitzgerald QC’s junior, Keir helped to bring a series of successful strategic appeals in the Caribbean, country by country, leading to the abolition of the mandatory death sentence in many of them. The team then went to Uganda where they succeeded in a mass appeal for 419 prisoners; then again in Malawi and more recently in Kenya.

In presenting the award, Guy Mansfield QC, then Chairman of the Bar, commented: “Keir Starmer QC has made a major contribution to changing the jurisprudence of the commonwealth on a fundamental matter – life and death … The world is truly the better for his outstanding efforts”.

Keir is keen to emphasise the team effort involved and speaks highly of the Award, viewing it as a “symbol of the deep commitment of the Bar to pro bono work”.


2004 winner: Andrew Hall QC

Andrew Hall QC is a stalwart of the world of pro bono and won the Award in 2004 for his work to develop and promote legal training, resources and expertise throughout East and Central Africa. Work in Africa developed out of providing advocacy training to young lawyers in Tanzania. Andrew says that he was genuinely shocked by many features of the legal system there.

He believes that it is the duty of members of his profession to try to give something back: “such work is always immensely rewarding and fantastically enjoyable.”

Andrew set up law facilities and training for lawyers in common law jurisdictions (including Uganda and Botswana) which have had an enormous impact on their justice systems. He emphasises that the development of close personal links with colleagues abroad is often hugely reassuring to them, especially in some jurisdictions where they are at personal risk for simply doing their jobs (for example Beatrice Mtetwa in Zimbabwe who has been repeatedly arrested and harrassed for representing her clients). 

Like Keir, Andrew emphasises the team effort involved in such work and says that he accepted the award “on behalf of all those who gave their time and energy to the many and various programmes”. He considers that winning the Award reflects the importance of such work which in turn spurs others to get involved in continuing programmes.


2002 winner: Samantha Knights

The 2002 winner, Samantha Knights was nominated for her significant and committed contribution to the work of Islington Law Centre. Her first pro bono cases were undertaken for the Bar Pro Bono Unit and Islington Law Centre early in her career at the Bar. 
Samantha points out that due to high costs, good legal advice is beyond the reach of many and law centres and pro bono organisations cannot do without the support of the legal profession.

Her general experience of pro bono work is “hard work but very rewarding”. She says that the cases are usually without the benefit of a “neatly typed set of instructions” and can involve a myriad of legal and non-legal issues tumbling out in any order.

Samantha is emphatic that pro bono is no substitute for an adequate legal aid system; it  should simply fill an essential gap for “the very vulnerable in society” who cannot access legal aid.

Samantha believes that it was a great privilege to win the Award and a reflection of the “fantastic work” that is done by law centres (such as Islington). She says that the best advert for pro bono is to “continue doing it and spread the word”.


1997 winner: Judith Farbey

Judith Farbey was the Award’s very first winner in 1997 and was nominated by solicitors for her commitment in undertaking a number of asylum and employment cases – including those for the Free Representation Unit (“FRU”) and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

She says that her first FRU case was a “gargantuan struggle” against experienced counsel and solicitors, but that the skills she acquired have stood the test of time.

Judith became involved with FRU as she had an employment law pupillage and was also undertaking monthly advice sessions at Turnpike Lane Advice Bureau. She highlights the huge learning experience: “people would just turn up with a problem and I did not know what it might be until they were sitting opposite me.”

Judith’s favourite memory of winning the Award was meeting Lord Goldsmith’s mother, whose kindness and generosity she found very touching.


The 2010 Bar Pro Bono Award

The closing date for nominations is 30 September 2010. The winner will be announced – and the Award presented – at the 25th Annual Bar Conference in London, on 6 November 2010. For more information about the Award visit www.barprobono.org.uk.

Georgina Closs is a Bar Pro Bono Unit case worker

Category: 
Tags: