Pro Bono in England & Wales

Friday, 22 May 2015 14:06 GMT

The Statue of Justice atop the Old Bailey, London. UNICS REUTERS/Russell Boyce RUS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

(Co-authored by Sarah Morton-Ramwell, Ashurst; Nicolas Patrick, DLA Piper)

Pro bono in the UK is presently undergoing a transformation. Large law firms are taking seriously their responsibilities to promote access to justice and are investing more into their pro bono practices. The increasing prominence of international and US law firms in London is also influencing the development of pro bono.

Great collaboration, targets and transparency

During the past year around 30 large law firms in the UK have signed up to the Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono. The plan includes a voluntary aspirational target of 25 hours of pro bono per lawyer per year, a commitment to access to justice and a commitment to transparency and improved reporting of performance.

It is pleasing to note that the number of firms reporting their pro bono performance to TrustLaw has increased in 2015 to 38 firms, up from 27 firms in 2014.

The average number of pro bono hours per lawyer reported in the UK over the past 12 months was 21.9. We expect to see this average increase over the next few years to around 35 hours per lawyer, where it will likely plateau until there is further funding for structural support, such as grant funding for community law centres to enable front line service providers to partner more effectively with pro bono providers. The lack of untied grant funding for front-line service providers is a significant barrier to the further expansion of pro bono capacity in the UK.

Professional Management

Another pleasing trend to emerge over the past year is the appointment of an increasing number of dedicated pro bono lawyers within UK firms, as opposed to the appointment of non-legally qualified managers. This is part of a wider trend of structuring pro bono programmes as a legal “practice” within law firms. Which at some firms is run by a full-time pro bono partner.

The appointment of professional pro bono lawyers is the single biggest predictor of success of a pro bono programme, and the emergence of new pro bono roles at several firms in the UK will inevitably lead to improved pro bono performance over the coming years.

Employers must provide pro bono opportunities

According to the Law Society pro bono survey, 58% of lawyers in the UK did not undertake pro bono in the past 12 months. For the lawyers who had not undertaken any pro bono work during the year, 40% cited inadequate opportunities, with 62% stating pro bono opportunities should be delivered to them by their employer. This highlights that there are a significant number of lawyers who are ready willing and able to undertake pro bono work and law firm management must deliver pro bono opportunities to these lawyers.

Fee credit for pro bono now available at most large firms

According to the Law Society pro bono survey, firms with more than 81 partners were twice as likely to treat pro bono work as billable than firms with fewer than 81 partners. By treating pro bono work as billable work for the purpose of fee earner reviews, law firms are removing one of the biggest barriers to pro bono participation - lack of time. By treating pro bono as billable, law firms also give life to the often stated principle that pro bono clients are equal to paying clients and get the same high standard of service.

Access to Justice

Legal aid cuts have started to take effect with some £350 million cut from the legal aid budget last year and a further £250 million in reductions each year until 2018.

Given that the small high-street legal practices are those most likely to be impacted by cuts to legal aid, it follows that there will be a corollary reduction in pro bono capacity at these firms. Indeed, pro bono participation was lower this year than in 2013 for all lawyers working in firms with less than 11 partners. Expect to see a reduction in pro bono capacity at this end of the market over the next few years as we see considerable reorganisation spurred by significant on-going spending reductions between now and 2018.

The decrease in legal aid spending, coupled with the closure of high street firms and law centres cannot be off-set by any increased pro bono capacity within the large law firms. First and most importantly, most of the unmet legal need that will emerge over the course of the next 4 years will be in areas outside the capital, and particularly in the north of the country, whereas most of the legal profession and most of the dormant pro bono capacity resides in London. Secondly, the pro bono capacity at large firms is still mostly directed to charities and non-profits, rather than to individuals, principally because of a mismatch between skills and expertise on the one hand, and areas of emerging need on the other.

In the UK there is a growing commitment to access to justice. Pro bono providers are increasingly directing pro bono capacity towards projects providing end to end case work for individuals. Examples of such efforts include - Employment (unpaid wages claims), Welfare benefits (first tier sanctions appeals), and Private Housing (reclaiming deposits). LawWorks has also recently received funding for several legal positions, which will be used to assist law firms to develop 'secondary specialisations' in areas relevant to poverty law.

About the Authors:

Sarah Morton-Ramwell is Partner and Global Head of Pro Bono at Ashurst. She has a background in human rights law, gender rights and reproductive rights, and worked at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York and International Planned Parenthood Federation in London. She is qualified in both New South Wales and England & Wales and sits on the councils of PILnet (Global Network for Public Interest Law) and TrustLaw. Sarah is a founding member of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability and helped to create the UK Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono.

Nicolas Patrick is one of two full-time pro bono partners at DLA Piper and is the Head of Corporate Responsibility for the international firm, based in London.

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