The business of pro bono

Did you know that last week was the 12th annual National Pro Bono Week?

Jon Robins, editor of The Pro Bono Yearbook of England and Wales 2013 published by the Bar Council, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) and the Law Society, has been considering the challenges and issues surrounding pro bono work.  In an interview (subscription required)  with Lexis Nexis, he explains that the big issue for pro bono is that these are difficult times for the legal profession, and they are difficult times for the pro bono movement.

The challenges facing pro bono are those that face the legal services market—most notably:

  • the unprecedented competition as a result of the Legal Services Act 2007 (LSA 2007) reforms on the high street
  • legal aid cuts under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO 2012), and of course
  • the difficult economic climate that firms face

When asked what practice areas struggle to find pro bono lawyers, he went on to describe how the big area of demand as reported by the pro bono organisations is in the area of social welfare law. LASPO 2012 cut £350m from the legal aid budget in April—by removing public funding for housing, welfare benefits, immigration, employment and many areas of family law (it remains available in some areas including where there is evidence of domestic violence, mediation and public children cases).

This has meant that the pro bono clearing houses and their frontline advice agencies are reporting a significant increase in demand. So for example, over the last 12 months, the solicitors’ pro bono brokerage LawWorks dealt with 2,883 inquiries. It reported a consistent increase in telephone inquiries post-LASPO 2012:

  • 107% for April
  • 74% for May
  • 260% in June

The group says ‘this is likely due to the impact of LASPO 2012 and funding cuts on advice agencies and Law Centres’. The Bar Pro Bono Unit handled 1400 cases and saw a 45% increase post LASPO 2012 in August 2013 compared to August 2012. The Personal Support Unit, which provides support for people facing legal proceedings without representation, had seen a 40% increase in clients over the last 12 months. The number of people asking for help on family cases rose by a third before the implementation of LASPO 2012.

According to last year’s LawWorks survey, lawyers were encouraged to undertake pro bono work in less than half of all firms (49%). They were required to do it in just over one in 10 (12%) and given incentives in 9%—in 2009, eight out of 10 firms apparently actively encouraged their lawyers. The degree of encouragement depends on the type of firms—and so in the largest firms, more than one quarter (27%) were given incentives.

His concerns surrounding the direction of pro bono work are:

  • the imposition of a mandatory commitment
  • greater co-ordination of pro bono activity
  • even the very definition of what ‘pro bono’ actually means

Did you carry out any pro bono work last week?  We’d be interested in hearing your experiences of carrying our pro bono work in the field of commercial law.

Area of Interest