A proud profession

Addressing lazy journalism; recognising what really motivates members of the Bar; looking at the pro bono work carried out on all fronts by so many; and the need for wider understanding of this contribution by all, especially the Government

Contributor
Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar

On a cold, wet, miserable winter’s evening at the beginning of the year I set off to a seminar on legal rights for disabled people in a slightly musty community centre opposite Pentonville Prison. I was slightly depressed by yet another tabloid rant about “fat cat” lawyers living off the “gravy train” that is the legal aid budget. I arrived to find that the event was sponsored by one set of chambers and was being addressed by a barrister from another set. It was a perfect example of the total breakdown between the fact and the lazy journalism that provides the fiction.

In my inaugural speech, I spoke of the vast amounts of work done by members of the Bar on a pro bono basis. It ranges from speaking at sessions like the one in Pentonville Prison, to barristers paying out of their own pockets to travel to Sierra Leone to teach advocacy and paying the expenses of the local lawyers to travel to the courses.

A recent survey shows that more than 42 per cent of the Bar carry out pro bono work. Around 500 silks and almost 3,000 juniors are registered to accept work from the Bar Pro Bono Unit. The Unit itself is entirely funded by the profession. Ranging from teaching advocacy within the profession through to charitable work in their local communities, all the way to international advocacy and ethics training, the vast majority of the profession contribute. That is a remarkable testament to the social conscience of the profession. It is a fact that has gone unnoticed or ignored by the public and Government for too long. At a time when all areas of the publicly-funded profession are under attack, and not just through fees, we should be educating the public to the realisation that we are not motivated by financial greed.

Providing pro bono services to the public is not the monopoly of the self-employed Bar. Most, if not all, of the major law firms devote staff time and resources to this in ever-increasing amounts. It is viewed by them as not simply being the right thing to do but also something which is increasingly desired or required by their clients and prospective clients. It is not simply done for the benefit it brings to the firms, but that benefit is recognised and advantage is taken of it.

The Bar is unlikely to attract work because individual barristers are contributing to the greater good in this way. However, it can only be hoped that the greater dissemination of the true picture might go some considerable way to dispel the totally false and incredibly unfair light in which we are often viewed.

I have tried and will continue to try to persuade those in Government of the true position. I have already raised the question of whether, rather than paying commercial providers large sums of money to teach advocacy in Africa, comparatively small sums might be made available as a contribution to the travel and accommodation expenses of those who give up paid work to go abroad to teach.

With a view to reaching a much wider audience, I will speak at the Bar Conference on Saturday 2 November about how much is done and how much is contributed to society, both domestically and internationally. As cuts in funding have greater and deeper effects, and the consequences of taking whole areas of work out of the scope of legal aid are felt, it must be more widely recognised just how large the profession’s contributions are to keeping ‘the show on the road’. The Bar Pro Bono Unit has seen its caseload increase by 45 per cent in some months compared to pre-LASPO, the Personal Support Unit is now dealing with more than 1,200 litigants each month, the Citizens Advice Bureau in the RCJ saw an increase of 94 per cent of litigants in 2011/12 compared to the previous year (Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau incorporating Islington CAB Annual Report 2011/12) and there are numerous advice centres and clinics throughout the country. All of these agencies, and many more are propping up the entire system. The Bar props up these agencies. These are the groups which struggle to maintain every citizen’s right to have access to justice, which is a fundamental part of the Rule of Law in our jurisdiction.

We know, from the Lord Chancellor himself, that our respect for and promotion of the Rule of Law is a substantial part of what makes our jurisdiction so attractive a location for international litigants who play such an enormous part in the contribution that the provision of legal services makes to our economy.

It is unacceptable that the pro bono contribution that the profession makes should continue to go unrecognised and unacknowledged. We are by definition great communicators; this is a fact that we should all learn to communicate. The Bar Conference will be the start of a campaign to correlate and publicise what we do. The Bar Council will assist chambers and individuals to organise what they do, how they run their practices and chambers and all that is done pro bono within the profession with a view to informing the public just how substantial the contribution actually is. Join in.