This realisation stayed with the Chairman beyond his term of office, and in 1996 he devised the Bar Pro Bono Unit.The idea was simple.He knew that many members of the Bar were happy to give generously of their time to help those who needed advice or representation, but could not afford to pay for it and were ineligible for legal aid.But he also knew that one of the obstacles to getting this help to the people who needed it was finding the right barristers able to take on the right cases.

The solution was to create a clearing house.Barristers were asked to sign up, committing themselves to three days a year and a committee would vet applications to decide which cases deserved pro bono help. Staff then matched the request to a barrister with the right expertise. The immediate reaction to his personal request was heart-warming, with 300 barristers saying ‘Yes’.

Meeting the storm of need

‘20 years on, the Unit is stronger than ever and needed more than ever,’ says Lord Goldsmith.‘Legal aid cuts have meant that so many people cannot get the legal help that they need. Whilst we have always taken the view that pro bono legal help is not a substitute for properly funded legal aid the reality is that too many cases and too many problems do not get legal assistance unless lawyers are prepared to help them without fee. I have been enormously proud of the way the Bar has responded to this.’

Today the Unit has a staff of 13, four academic interns a day and almost 4,000 barristers willing to donate their time. The Unit is a still a relatively small national charity, but with a long reach. The rapid growth in the past 10 years has, of course, been dictated by cuts to legal aid, subtle and more drastic.

Shyam Popat, former Unit caseworker and now Pro Bono Coordinator at South West London Law Centre, described his experience when hired in anticipation of the most recent cuts in 2013: ‘It wasn’t overnight but more of a steady storm until around September when suddenly the numbers began to double in comparison with previous months. Clients were noticeably more vulnerable. Nonetheless, the profession stood up and despite the increase in clients, more clients were assisted and the Unit coped with the pressures.’

Pro bono barristers have assisted with over 15,000 applications received by the Unit in the past 20 years, whether as a reviewing barrister or offering free legal services. Every day Emily MacLoud, our Head of Casework, is ‘blown away by the contribution made by volunteer barristers who work days, nights, weekends and even holidays! We are a small charity with big ambitions. We may not be able to help everyone who comes to us seeking assistance but we certainly provide a very valuable drop in an ever expanding ocean of need.’

Barristers do not only volunteer their time but give financially; this year more than 50% of the Bar donated. I am hopeful this number will increase alongside our panel members to give us a strong foundation for the years ahead. Our key role is and always shall be to facilitate the provision of high-quality advice and representation to those who lack the means to access justice. This will be the parameter by which we measure our impact in 20 years’ time.

Key collaborations

Whilst the Unit’s primary charitable objective is to facilitate free legal help to litigants in person (LIPs), it also plays its part in the wider pro bono community. Through the Litigant in Person Support Strategy, the Unit has played its part creating duty schemes in Family, Chancery and the Court of Appeal.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, former LawWorks CEO, believes such collaboration over the years led to the creation of the National Pro Bono Centre, which has been home to the Unit and other pro bono organisations since 2010. Closer physical proximity ultimately delivers greater impact: ‘My time on the Unit’s board helped to bring the Unit and LawWorks more closely together, and being part of that partnership is certainly the thing I am proudest of, along with the establishment of the National Pro Bono Centre, which was part and parcel of that partnership.’

The view of our Chairman, His Honour Judge Robin Knowles, is that: ‘The part the Unit enables the profession to play in the public interest owes everything to staff and interns, management committee members and barristers. But it also owes everything to barristers clerks and practice managers, to the Inns of Court, and to successive leaders of the Bar Council. It has further been the Unit’s privilege to work together with solicitors and chartered legal executives and with the advice sector. Our sincere thanks go to the Unit’s founding Chairman, Lord Goldsmith, and to a line of quite exceptional directors and CEOs: Vanessa Sims, Alice Sheldon, Rebecca Wilkie, Lindsey Poole, Nick Gallagher and now Jess Campbell.’

The next 20

Our plans are to innovate consistently in order to keep pace with future legal developments while ensuring that we, and our partner organisations, keep LIPs (including those who would remain LIPs but for the Bar’s help) at the forefront of the pro bono world.

In November we launch an electronic application system to improve our ability to deal efficiently with cases and records maintenance. In tandem, we are updating our internal processes so that caseworkers have more time to support volunteer barristers through improved case and paper management. We hope new schemes launching in 2017 will be able to assist the more ordinary problems that barristers can solve without difficulty for LIPs. For example, we are developing a mentorship scheme with the young Bar.

I leave the concluding words to our founding Chairman, Lord Goldsmith: ‘I am very proud of the work that has been done. The Unit has embedded a pro bono culture in the Bar with a high quality of service. I am enormously appreciative of the people who have worked on this project over the last 20 years: the barristers who have helped to run the Unit and to do the vetting; the staff the Unit has been fortunate to attract and of course the barristers who have made sure their professional practice includes pro bono work.

‘It is the very definition of being a professional to be willing to use your skills and experience where it is needed even where the person you help cannot afford it.I hope pro bono and the Pro Bono Unit will continue going for a long time to come.’

Jess Campbell, Chief Executive, Bar Pro Bono Unit