Welcome to the first Bar Pro Bono Unit quarterly column in Counsel. Through this column you will be kept up-to-date with developments in pro bono work, initiatives near to you and how you can get more involved.

Hello and thank you

But let me begin with introductions. I am Jess Campbell, the new Chief Executive of the Bar Pro Bono Unit, and I am in the very privileged position to begin this column with a “thank you”. Thank you, for all of your donations to the Unit during the Authorisation to Practice period in April. More than half the Bar generously donated.

Through your donations we have been able to modernise our website – the key interface between the public, our caseworkers and the Bar. Making the language and layout more accessible was essential and long overdue. We have also hired a seventh and eighth caseworker which allows the Unit to continue to play its essential role in assisting litigants who cannot afford their legal costs and who are not eligible for legal aid in the search for a solution to their legal problem. I am sure you have seen our statistics: we have seen a 30% increase in applications year-on-year since the LASPO cuts were introduced. As more advice centres close, you too will have experienced that litigants are unsure of where to go to get suitable advice. A larger casework team means we can satisfy some of the need more rapidly. Whilst we will never meet the public demand put upon us, more time can now be put into case allocation and communicating with litigants. The new, larger casework team is one you will get to know soon, but more about that in a moment.

I would also like to thank you for your ongoing support by accepting work from the Unit. From my five years at the Bar Council and from speaking with so many of you, I am familiar with the difficulties many are experiencing with fee cuts and increased court fees. Despite this pressure, each day I am privileged to be able to write to new volunteers and thank those who have taken on cases for us. You know that we just would not exist without such backing from the profession.

Ministry of Justice

By way of our first update, we were contacted by Ministry of Justice (MoJ) civil servants after the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove MP, mentioned the amount of pro bono being undertaken by lawyers in a speech focusing on One Nation Justice (23 June, Legatum Institute). We were able to emphasise and illustrate the amount of work the profession is doing, not only through the Unit but through Bar in the Community, unbilled hours and other pro bono organisations. Pro bono is part of being a lawyer and willingness to undertake pro bono work is something many lawyers feel is part of their wider vocation, and the Bar has always exemplified this. However, the Unit reiterated to the MoJ, as did the Bar Council, that there is no way we, or any other pro bono agency, could plug any gap left by the cuts to legal aid, nor should we be expected to do so. We did get across that we had a real understanding of how vital legal aid is, and were willing to share this understanding with the MoJ at greater depth. Pro bono works best, and can only work well, as an adjunct to a healthy, valued and well targeted legal aid system, and alongside a healthy and valued advice sector.

Profile on Circuit

With pro bono appearing in the spotlight we recognise that there is more that the Unit can do to support the Bar in providing services to those most in need and most deserving. From talking with front line agencies who refer work to us and seeing our allocation statistics, it is clear that the Unit could improve its role and profile on Circuit. We are not and do not want to be seen as a London-centric charity, as we understand that the need for help is just as high outside of the capital.

We renewed our work in this connection last year through an initiative from our Communications and Fundraising Manager, Kuki Taylor, and you may have seen one of our caseworkers on the legal walks in Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham to name a few. The main aim of our trips is to understand better the needs of litigants and volunteers in the regions. We understand that need will be different in each locality and what works in one area will not necessarily easily transfer to your area. It is our job to facilitate pro bono work, therefore we want to make it as easy as possible for you to accept the cases that need assistance. A second aim for these visits is so that you can get to know the faces and names of our team; despite being a small charity, the quality and initiative of the casework and fundraising staff members mean that we are able to provide services beyond what might have been initially imagined for the Unit when we were set up 19 years ago.

Our trips also allow us to build relationships with local advice agencies to really understand the culture of the area and the impact of the cuts that may be lesser or greater depending on the region. For the Unit to improve its allocation rate outside London we do need your feedback; I will be travelling around the country over the next few months to meet with as many of you as I can. I have already been invited to Cambridge, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Nottingham and Cardiff and would be delighted to join you where you are.

Share your pro bono experience

I would like to invite your comments on the experiences you have had accepting, or wanting to accept, cases from the Unit, what encourages you to take a case and what prevents you from so doing. Please do let me know your thoughts: JCampbell@BarProBono.org.uk

Biannual quiz

The Unit is holding its biannual quiz on Monday 16 November at the Inner Temple, this year hosted by Clive Anderson. We would be delighted to see you there. Such occasions are an opportunity to celebrate the good work you have done and enables us to continue to support those litigants who come to us with few options and many questions to find a form of resolution.