* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Bar has a tradition of using its expertise to help those who would otherwise have no ability to access justice; that much is known. The profession takes pro bono seriously. Many barristers donate their expertise to charities or to individuals without pomp and circumstance – quietly playing their part in what the profession deems its core ethos.
We’ve all been there, the weeks when emails flood in, the phones ring perpetually and it feels like the world’s problems are our own to solve. So we take five minutes, change our perspective, discover a new, more workable reality, and return to our desks. For with all the will in the world, with just 13 members of staff and even with 3,600 volunteer barristers the Bar Pro Bono Unit cannot begin to make a drop in the ocean of need that has become acutely apparent since LASPO cuts in 2012.
The Unit has been working with people with nowhere else to turn for 20 years. Our volunteer barristers connect to the growing number of human beings and not the evershocking statistics. The demand is no joke; it is real, present and palpable. At the Bar Pro Bono Unit our volunteer barristers and staff team hear and see people at their most vulnerable and visceral. When a man calls up the casework team in tears because he is about to lose his home and possibly his children due to an employment issue we hear that, we feel that. When a woman recovering from a stroke writes to us for help because an international bank is threatening to take her home and livelihood we hear that, we feel that. These are just two stories amongst the many we hear and feel each day. To say I am inspired by my colleagues and the wider pro bono family would be an understatement. They keep such focus on the reality and responsibilities of the job in hand whilst retaining perspective and levity that gets us all through the day. I use the word family because the pro bono sector is so close and supportive. After five years I am still constantly reinvigorated to work with inspirational and innovative colleagues across the Bar coming up with new ideas to fulfil our purpose to help those most in need. In fact, the Bar’s offerings over the past five years alone has increased and become more diverse:
Pro Bono Connect combines the expertise of both commercial barristers and solicitors working together, one supporting the other when required in complex pro bono cases. The Chancery Bar Association Litigants in Person Scheme (CLIPS) is a duty scheme in the Rolls Building that has been described as “transformative” to Litigants in Person by Chancery Judges. The Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau has a number of joint duty schemes, including London Central Family Court and in the Court of Appeal for Permissions and full Appeals. The Employment Lawyers Association have a commitment to completing 100 days of pro bono work. The Unit is delighted to have a third of all QCs volunteering for us and it is not just legal work where volunteering is being embraced by the Bar. Through our sister charity Bar in the Community we see not just barristers but chief executives, clerks and other chambers’ staff volunteering their time to the benefit of their community as trustees, mentors and school governors.
The Unit is not a campaigning organisation; our function is to administer the Bar’s pro bono effort. We match-make people who cannot afford to pay for a barrister and who also cannot claim for legal aid, with volunteer barristers. We take our role seriously, in all conscience, and whether we are able to assist or not our Wall of Happiness, (quotes from applicants and volunteers) provides the necessarily motivation for the staff and volunteer barristers:
“I would like to acknowledge the life changing difference you have made in being my Counsel...I do not relish the win but celebrate your accomplishment in engaging a result that gives hope and freedom to our children to become awesome beings…Thank you for giving me hope.” - Bar Pro Bono Unit applicant