The future of legal volunteering

probonoweek-logoCuts to the legal sector will oblige a more resourceful approach to how the potential of pro bono work can be best utilised in the future. As part of National Pro Bono Week 2016, Lesley Anderson QC, chair of the Chancery Bar Association’s pro bono subcommittee, looks at civil society endeavours and the role lawyers can play in public education on law and politics, as key and optimistic starting points.

Other than the traditional offering of free legal advice, what are the additional ways that lawyers can use their legal expertise for the public good?

This can be done in two main ways. First, projects like Street Law are concerned with classroom and community based programmes which educate young people about law, government and constitutional issues. While the degree of active political engagement is still low among that age group, lawyers have an important educational role to play in the national post-Brexit and Scottish referendum debates (the latter saw 16 and 17 year olds enfranchised for the first time and a significantly higher level of active participation). These events reinforce the crucial part lawyers play in the national, constitutional debate. Second, lawyers have significant transferable skill sets which go beyond their technical legal knowledge and legal literacy and are well placed to participate in schemes which promote general literacy, mediation, advocacy and negotiation skills.

How do you envisage the future of volunteering in the legal sector?

Civil engagement by lawyers is still likely to focus on three main areas—representation (eg the flagship Chancery Bar Association’s (ChBA) Litigants in Person Scheme (CLIPS)) advice (Law Works and the Bar Pro Bono and Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau schemes) and lobbying/civil engagement of the type already identified. The need will increase and I think we will see even greater numbers of lawyers becoming involved (even those for whom the voluntary sector is somewhat unfamiliar territory). The ChBA experience suggests that there is now much better liaison between volunteer providers so that someone who needs representation beyond the ‘on the day’ service CLIPS provides can be seamlessly referred on. It is also inevitable that the scope of work will extend to other courts (such as the recent scheme in the Court of Appeal for permission applications) and tribunals.

How can the legal profession best utilise pro bono work to engage with and help plug gaps left in legal aid funding?

While we should never give up the argument that properly funded public funding is essential for access to justice, the private sector is already filling much of the territory left by the withdrawal of legal aid funding for almost all civil disputes. I would, however, challenge the premise that these are properly described as ‘gaps’.

Is there anything the UK can learn from other jurisdictions with a heavy pro bono culture?

There is always something to learn from other jurisdictions. In the US the acclaimed ‘Innocence Project’ was set up as long ago as 1992 and has been helping to exonerate wrongly-convicted persons ever since.

Any other interesting trends affecting the pro-bono sector?

I think the ones I identified already—increasing need across a whole range of courts and tribunals will be met, I think, by active engagement by increasing number of lawyers at all levels—students, academics and practitioners. I think that there is a significant untapped resource in retired practitioners (including judges) especially given the relatively young age at which many partners retire from UK law firms. While, traditionally, this is a sector to which the pro bono sector has looked for tangible financial support and funding, I think we can expect much more active volunteering from them.

Interviewed by Julian Sayarer. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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