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Faciemus pro bono*

02 November 2015

*Latin for: do pro bono!

Martin Barnes, chief executive of LawWorks, explains the significance of National Pro Bono Week and outlines how pro bono work contributes to access to justice.

National Pro Bono Week

There is a lot to celebrate and applaud during National Pro Bono Week - the profile of pro bono has never been higher nor, possibly, has its contribution been greater. The passion and commitment of so many to pro bono - across the legal professions and among law students - is inspiring, and deserves to be highlighted and promoted. The week is also an opportunity to share, learn and debate - about barriers, opportunities, best practice, evaluation and impact, and much more.

But there is definitely something in the air this week - at events across England and Wales a metaphorical elephant will be making its presence felt: Michael Gove's speech at the Legatum Institute, and his 'challenge' to the profession to do more to enable access to justice.

Pro bono does not exist in a vacuum. Despite commendable achievement within the solicitors' profession, pro bono activity is far from uniform, consistent and integrated, with variability across England and Wales. This is understandable, and reflects a complex mix of factors: geography (for example around 57 per cent of practising solicitors are based in London and the South East), culture, economics and history. But factors more external to the profession also have a profound influence, as challenge and opportunity.

LawWorks exists because of the power - and potential - of pro bono and its contribution to enabling access to justice. Our role incudes encouraging, facilitating, supporting and promoting pro bono, and seeking to address regulatory, practical and other obstacles. More can be done across the profession: through encouragement, facilitation, incentives, and sector-wide leadership.

Since joining LawWorks earlier this year as chief executive, nearly every public utterance from me has included the leitmotif: "Pro bono makes an important contribution but it is not, and should not be seen as, an alternative to publicly funded advice services and legal aid."

The deep cuts to legal aid and the impact of financial austerity on law centres and advice agencies continue to shape and influence. The tectonic plates have shifted, the foundations of traditional and contemporary pro bono continue to be shaken - and the secretary of state's intervention adds a rare political dimension and context.

Michael Gove is a politician with a rare sense of history, and has spoken (rightfully) of the need for a 'narrative arc of chronology' when it is taught, and understood. In a previous role as secretary of state for education, he promoted the importance of classical education and Latin. It is therefore pertinent to emphasise how pro bono is built upon solid ethical, professional and historical foundations.

The power of pro bono lies in its derivation: 'pro bono publico' - for the public good. While not encapsulated in the original Latin, legal pro bono has universally been taken to include work done voluntarily without payment. The willingness of lawyers to step forward to help those who cannot afford to pay has a long and proud tradition.

Perhaps the lines have been blurred - for example, a catalyst for pro bono can include the time contributing towards billable hours - but the essential elements (for example, work without payment for the beneficiary) are what make the legal profession's engagement with pro bono so profound, special and necessary.

Last Friday, National Pro Bono Week was celebrated on Twitter by a Thunderclap - over 100 organisations and individuals coordinated to tweet a message in support of #NPBW2015 and #WeDoProBono. A respected legal commentator and Tweeter subsequently made the following observation (tongue partly in cheek): 'Celebrate legal "pro bono" week by going up to a plumber and asking them to work for free.'

I suspect many plumbers do in fact sometimes give their time for free, but a point is made. It is precisely because pro bono is such a part of being a lawyer that the tweet largely falls flat. But in the absence of an understanding of the profession, its history, values and commitment, a member of the public may well ask: why should a lawyer work for free?

Michael Gove's challenge has been a catalyst for the profession. It is important to seize the opportunity, to reflect, challenge, debate and respond. But hopefully the secretary of state will also recognise the importance of the profession's 'arc of chronology' on pro bono - its existing roots and drivers - and seek to support and build on what is in place.

Tags: National Pro Bono Week | pro bono

About the author

Martin Barnes is the chief executive of LawWorks (‘the Solicitors Pro bono Group’). Previous roles include chief executive at the charity DrugScope and director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). He has been a welfare rights worker and volunteer at a Citizens Advice bureau, a member of advisory groups and committees (including the Criminal Justice Council and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs), and was a trustee at Family Action.
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