We are also fortunate to have 80 senior barristers who donate countless hours to review our cases and decide whether a case is appropriate for pro bono help. Finally, we have 3100 barristers on our panel, ranging from pupils to silks, who have pre-volunteered to do at least three days’ pro bono per year. The willingness of these three groups to support us is invaluable in enabling us to provide an excellent service to our applicants.
CB: And internally, it’s the team we have. They are incredibly committed, often working very long hours, and the effort they put into the events we run is stellar. Robin Knowles QC, who is our Chair, has boundless enthusiasm and energy and gives the team leadership. He takes the view that nothing can stand in the way. We also have a dedicated management committee who are very pro-active and hands on.
What ambitions do you still have for the BPBU?
CB: Primarily, for all barristers to regard a contribution of pro bono work as an essential part of being a barrister.
RW: First and foremost it is improving our funding to try and make it more sustainable and to enable us to recruit more staff. We also need to do more in the regions and by that I mean we need to be more pro-active about recruiting panel members. People ask why we need more than 3100 barristers. Put simply it concerns geographical reach, areas of specialisms and the barristers’ years of call so that we can find suitable counsel with availability when a case arises.
What made you both want to become involved in the BPBU?
CB: It seemed the right fit for me to put something back into the profession that has been so good to me over 33 years.
RW: I’ve been passionate about pro bono since starting my career at a City firm and discovering that it was the pro bono work that I enjoyed most. I moved to LawWorks (the solicitor equivalent of the Bar Pro Bono Unit) after qualifying, and four years later felt keen to work with the Bar. Over the past ten years working full time in the pro bono sector I have seen countless cases where, but for the generosity of a pro bono lawyer, people’s lives would have been destroyed. It was best summed up recently by one of our applicants: Suffice to say, for me, it is akin to being cornered on the playground by the school bully and having an older brother arrive to stand behind you.
CB: The skillset as a senior clerk is very useful in helping with the strategy. I can provide an inside track to chambers and networking with service providers. These service providers can assist in different ways, financially obviously but also with awareness, and in return they get closer to the Bar.
What is the best professional advice you’ve been given?
RW: Get a mentor to support you as CEO of a charity. I have found it invaluable to have an external perspective to use as a sounding board.
CB: The best advice given to me was from my first Senior Clerk, Robin Soule – “make a decision, it may not be the right one, but you’ve made it”. It has worked well for me over the years.
What challenges does the BPBU face in the next few years?
RW: Undoubtedly cuts to legal aid funding – we envisage the increase in demand for our services is going to be enormous. At the moment we have five and a half case-workers and we deal with 1,300 cases a year. The sector is already under huge pressure and it is important to recognise that the pro bono sector lacks the capacity to deal with the consequences of the range and depth of the cuts. Even now we cannot ensure access to justice for all of those excluded from legal aid and who cannot afford legal assistance. Funding also continues to be a major challenge - the Unit does not apply for any public funding and our staff and infrastructure is funded entirely by the profession and by donations.
CB: It was reported recently that some 650,000 people will lose legal aid. If we get 1% of that figure coming to us, we couldn’t cope at present.
Michael Todd QC, ex-chair of the Bar Council, made a call to arms for each member of the Bar to pay £30 to the BPBU – what impact would that make?
RW: It would be enormous. It would fund the Unit completely and would greatly reduce the amount of time we spend on fundraising activities.
CB: It could be put towards the hiring of new staff. Though I would add that it doesn’t matter how someone supports us, whether it’s paying £30, being on our panel, or being a clerk in chambers supporting the Unit. It all makes a huge difference and is greatly appreciated.
Chris Broom and Rebecca Wilkie were interviewed by Guy Hewetson of Hewetson Shah.