Pro bono: making a meaningful impact

From welfare clinics to multi-firm collaborations, solicitors across England and Wales are constantly finding new ways to support people through pro bono advice. We hear from four legal teams about the challenges and rewards of making a meaningful impact.
"Act for Justice" gavel sculpture among memorials at Beirut Port Explosion site, Lebanon (December 2021). In the background, there are cranes and wreckage of port buildings.
Photograph: Ali Chehade

Justice for families in Beirut – Dechert LLP

On 4 August 2020, hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut and killed at least 218 people and injured many more.

It’s been reported as the largest known non-nuclear explosion in history.

Dechert’s team were asked to assist the Beirut Bar Association and other victims to file a claim in the High Court against English company Savaro Ltd, which imported the ammonium nitrate into Beirut.

Speaking to people who’ve been through such traumatic experiences was difficult, admits associate Abdul Azeem s/o Abdul Samad. “I just tried to keep the end goal in mind ... justice was not being done in Lebanon.”

The High Court judgment is the first monetary award for victims of the Beirut port explosion.

“It is a sign of hope for us and the Lebanese, that justice exists somewhere. It gives courage and strength to continue," Paul Naggear, one of the claimants, whose three-year-old daughter was killed in the explosion told Middle East news outlet, The National.

Neil Hart KC and Akash Sonecha of Essex Court Chambers and Emma-Louise Fenelon and Thomas Beamont of One Crown Office Row were instructed pro bono in this litigation, through the assistance of Advocate.

Unlocking hours to make a meaningful difference

Dechert has a long-standing tradition of providing free legal advice to individuals, charities and social enterprises that cannot afford to pay for legal services.

At any one time, the firm has over 1,500 pro bono matters open, ranging from legal advice for vulnerable individuals to commercial legal advice for charities and social enterprises, strategic litigation and comparative legal research.

To encourage engagement, all pro bono time is treated in the same way as billable time. 

“The firm’s holistic, flexible approach makes a difference,” says Abdul. 

The Beirut case required over 2,150 pro bono hours over a two-year period, for example.

“Pro bono work is a great place to cut your teeth as an associate. It's good exposure and a great opportunity to take on responsibility. Plus it’s incredibly satisfying to feel you can give something meaningful back to society and make a real impact on individuals’ lives.”

Keeping the lights on at a local charity, Muckle LLP

In 2023, a Northumberland charity found itself in a dispute with an energy broker claiming a fee for an alleged breach of contract.

As a small charity with a tight budget, staff were faced with the impossible decision of paying the disputed amount or financing legal support – neither of which they could afford.

“We felt we had done nothing wrong, but the continuous harassment and threat of legal action against us was very stressful,” recalls the charity’s executive manager.

Local firm Muckle LLP stepped in after a referral from the local Community Foundation. The Newcastle-based firm is committed to providing exceptional social support to the communities where its staff live and work.

The firm robustly defended the unsubstantiated claim, which was dropped, so the charity can continue its mission in the community.

“I’m thrilled to have been able to help,” said trainee Georgia Barber.

“The value of the claim was a significant amount for the charity, and would have placed them into serious financial hardship had they been forced to pay.”

“Muckle’s intervention came as a great relief.” explained a charity spokesperson. “It wasn’t just what Muckle achieved for us, but the team’s friendly, approachable, sympathetic and professional way they worked with us.”

Opportunities to lead and learn as a trainee

“Working on this matter was an invaluable learning experience for me as a trainee,” says Georgia, who led the project with support from the wider dispute resolution team.

“A personal highlight was working closely with our head of disputes, Susan Howe, discussing our strategy and pinning down the technical legal points where the other side's argument failed.”

Susan agrees: “Pro-bono legal support is a well-established method by which we can give back to our region's charities.

"It also provides an opportunity for talented people, such as Georgia, to make use of their practical skills, regardless of their seniority and experience, safe in the knowledge that their pro bono work is as valued by the firm as their fee-earning work."

Susan Howe and Georgia Barber, standing on balcony of Muckle LLP's office in Newcastle on a sunny day. Both are white women with shoulder-length hair, Susan is older and wears a sleeveless white top with black polkadot and Georgia is in her early 20s and wears a mint-green jumpsuit. Behind them is a glass building, decking and outdoor plants with Newcastle buildings in the background.

Susan Howe and Georgia Barber, Muckle LLP

Dignity and closure for bereaved families – Hudgell Solicitors

Hudgell Solicitors recently represented the family of Nicola Bulley at the inquest into her death.

The case was very high profile, given the huge media coverage of Nicola’s disappearance in January 2023 and widespread speculation on social media platforms.

News coverage: Terry Wilcox and members of Nicola Bulley's family outside court giving statement after inquest. Text on screen reads: "Live | Preston | Breaking news: Statements after conclusion of Nicola Bulley inquest"

Hudgells and Sophie Cartwright KC, of Deans Court Chambers, represented the family on a pro bono basis, with help from Advocate.

Associate solicitor Terry Wilcox said: “We were immensely proud to support Nicola’s family throughout the inquest.

“Our work often sees us supporting families who have lost a loved one in unexplained circumstances. Our clients enter a world which is beyond their normal experience, it’s our role to guide them through the legal process.”

The firm’s priorities were to:

  • ensure the family were fully prepared for the inquest process and understood what it would involve
  • preserve the family’s dignity throughout the hearing, given they were vulnerable to the significant media interest and social media speculation
  • get the clarity and answers our clients needed from the inquest
  • secure closure for the family and an end to public speculation around the circumstances of Nicola’s death

Terry added: “The inquest was hugely important for Nicola’s family and, in light of the continued targeted messages the family had received on social media, we supported them in issuing a statement to the media highlighting the evidence and verdict.”

The senior coroner praised Hudgell solicitors and Deans Court Chambers for acting for the family on a pro bono basis because “they believed this was the right thing to do”.

With offices in Hull, Manchester and London, Hudgells has established a reputation for inquiries and inquests work in recent years. However, it is increasingly providing its expertise on a pro bono basis.

Team members must commit to a set amount of pro bono legal work each year, contributing to a firm-wide annual target of 500 hours.

“It is a privilege to be able to use our experience and expertise to help people find answers,” said Terry, whose own drive to find the truth following a tragedy is very personal.

His brother was a survivor of the Hillsborough disaster – a case Terry was later to be involved in by representing at the second inquests.

“Pro bono work is among our most rewarding. I was brought up in an inner city and as the youngest child of a Liverpool docker was taught to fight for the rights of the less fortunate. I try to fulfil this with every case that I come across.”

In-house expertise to level up learning resources – legal team, Entain

Social learning charity Speak Street offers free English classes to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

To support its community beyond the classroom, the charity wanted to publish a set of handbooks. However, when staff realised some of the material belonged to third parties, they feared legal complications.

“Entain has a great intellectual property (IP) team and felt we had excellent expertise which we could lend to the charity,” said James Thomson, senior legal counsel and co-chair of the pro bono network at sports betting and gaming company Entain.

“Our team reviewed the handbooks, highlighting information belonging to the third parties, and then drafted appropriate copyright assignments.”

“We hope the handbooks will continue to boost learners’ confidence and extend the charities’ outreach to the community of non-English speakers in the UK.”

In 2023, 90% students have reported improved confidence and 46% are more willing to play an active role in their communities.

Find out more about Speak Street’s impact

Impact report 2023, slide deck: polaroid style image of five women holding blue handbooks and smiling. Text reads:  A review of Speak Street 2022/23:  "Having a book to work through gives people a great sense of progress and achievement." Community Impact logo

Insider tips on running an impactful pro bono programme

In-house teams often face unique challenges when it comes to pro bono work.

We discussed this with James, and Kiri Flutter (also senior legal counsel, and co-chair of Entain’s pro bono committee). They say: “It makes a difference if you can collect data on the types of pro bono work people have previously done – and what they’d like to do in future.

“We found that our colleagues already had a diverse array of experience we could draw from (legal drafting, research and community work), which was a great help in ensuring we could find opportunities that matched their interests.”

While many private practices include pro bono in billable hours targets, this is not always possible for in-house legal departments.

“It’s extremely important that senior figures buy into the pro bono programme and encourage participation,” says Simon Zinger, general counsel at Entain.

“This shows the team that pro bono work is a valuable part of our day jobs, which can be balanced with our usual workload.”

Read our pro bono guide for in-house lawyers

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