Pro Bono Watch

Ch-ch-changes: Jess Campbell reflects on a significant year for the Bar Pro Bono Unit; explains what the £30 initiative means to litigants in person; and sets out how volunteering fits so well with the wellbeing initiative

The close of a year is always a good time for reflection and the Bar Pro Bono Unit has much to reflect on from 2016. 

We spent the early part of last year analysing how the Unit provides services to both litigants in person and to volunteer barristers, asking what was working and what we could improve. We identified three key areas to work on: streamlining the application process; putting the application form online; and engaging better with our volunteers.

The objective of these changes is for the Unit casework team to be more efficient in processing applications for help, giving them more time to assist clerks and barristers wishing to take on pro bono work.

We put changes in place to streamline the application process at the end of 2016. Caseworkers now work in task-based teams covering different stages of an application, instead of owning each application end-to-end. The caseworkers have adapted quickly to the new system and we are already seeing results from its flexibility; if a caseworker is unwell or one part of the process becomes particularly busy, caseworkers can be moved from one task team to another to manage the workflow.

The development of our IT systems will mean that applicants will be able to access our services via an online application form, ensuring that our small team of caseworkers will become more efficient in processing requests for help. Additionally, from the end of summer 2017, our volunteers will begin to receive papers in an ordered form, electronically bundled and easily accessible through the website.

In practice, the Unit is now well-equipped to handle the expected increase in requests from members of the public seeking legal help. We will also be able to serve our volunteers better and make it possible for barristers to balance a dedicated practice with making a significant contribution to the community.

Allocations: help needed

Throughout 2016 the Unit saw the Bar continue to step up to help litigants in person, not only by providing advice or representation on nearly 900 occasions, but through the review process. Reviewing applications serves two purposes: barristers who take on cases can be sure that what they are doing is worth their free time; and litigants who are rejected gain some value from the Unit process so that they do not waste time, money or energy pursuing cases that lack merit.

It will come as no surprise that the areas that faced the more severe legal aid cuts continue to be the areas in which the Unit seeks barrister volunteers.

The most difficult cases to place are lower level family child cases suitable for barristers of minimum 1-3 years’ Call. These cases often involve applicants who are part way through their court case. As a result, the Unit has brought in extra review criteria, to identify cases that are so exceptional as to warrant assistance. This is to make sure we manage our applicants’ expectations and reduce some of the pressure on barrister volunteers.

I recently met with the Chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, Philip Marshall QC, and I am in regular dialogue with the Young Barristers’ Committee to see how the Unit can support family and young barristers who still want to undertake pro bono work. I welcome your ideas too, so please do get in touch.

For those of you who have signed up to our panel and not yet taken on a piece of pro bono work, let 2017 be your year to do so. Chambers that facilitate pro bono are in a better position to support tenants’ wellbeing; the Bar Council Wellbeing Portal notes that ‘helping others makes us feel good and reciprocity also drives long term self-reported wellbeing’.

Pro bono can also help you progress your career, if you are new to the Bar or looking to take the next step into Silk or onto the bench. There are pro bono opportunities that might see you in front of the right judges, making that step a little easier.

Authorisation to Practice (AtP)

It is that time of the year when you renew your practising certificates. In 2016 over 50% of you donated to the Unit. Despite only being introduced four years ago, it is testament to the Bar’s deeply held commitment to pro bono work that over half of you make this contribution to support the Bar Pro Bono Unit (see box).

Can we please come together to increase this number again in 2017? The donation to the Unit is £30. For some of you this is a big ask and we are so grateful, as we can see that the majority of AtP donations still come from the publicly funded Bar.

I understand this year you already face a 12% increase in the practising certificate fee. I know this impacts those on lower incomes by £13-£53 and then tax. The Unit is aware that we are dependent on your generous funding and not only do we ask you to donate, but also to do work for our applicants.

This year we call on those of you who fall into Bands 4-6. Many of you tell me that you would like to contribute and support the Unit but are not in a position to help practically with the kinds of cases we need to allocate, as I mention above. The £30 donation when renewing your practising certificate is one of the simplest ways to get involved with the Unit and demonstrate the Bar’s inherent altruism.

Many chambers now purchase practising certificates in bulk. If this includes your set, please give permission to your clerk or chambers administrator to let them know you want to make the Unit donation when they process your renewal. We know of bulk purchases that unfortunately cannot support the Unit this way because counsel has not let them know they wish to do this.

There are still some people who are not familiar with the Unit’s work, so please tell your colleagues in chambers, in the robing rooms, and on Twitter about the different ways they can support the Unit. Show your Twitter support @BarProBonoUnit using #WeDoProBono.

Making pro bono easy

2017 will see the Unit continue its development and you will hear more from us. We are dedicated to making pro bono as easy as possible, to work with the Bar Council in helping you maintain positive wellbeing and to celebrate the work you have done so far.

We always welcome your feedback and you can contact us using the dedicated barrister telephone line: 020 7690 3971 or email address: caseworker@BarProBono.org.uk

Jess Campbell Chief Executive of the Bar Pro Bono Unit

What the £30 initiative achieves

The £30 initiative has meant that over four years the Unit has facilitated the Bar to:

  • provide advice and/or representation on 3,849 pieces of work;
  • help 1,521 people;
  • set up four major duty schemes: at the Rolls Building, Central London Family Court, Central London Employment Tribunal and Court of Appeal; and
  • collaborate with multiple front-line agencies to support litigants in person.

It has also meant that, internally, the Unit could:

  • hire two new caseworkers;
  • implement a comprehensive database to support better working;
  • upgrade its IT hardware;
  • streamline processes; and
  • begin to digitise its services.

The £30 donation when renewing your practising certificate is one of the simplest ways to get involved with the Unit and demonstrate the Bar’s inherent altruism

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Jess Campbell

Jess is Chief Executive of the Bar Pro Bono Unit, before which she spent five years at the Bar Council as head of policy for regulatory issues and law reform.