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Expert: Law Society claim that rising pro bono is filling the legal aid gap is ‘misleading’

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Volunteering by lawyers to help individuals hit by cuts may actually be falling

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The Law Society president Andrew Caplen yesterday described the scale of free legal work done by lawyers as “humbling” — as his organisation unveiled research showing pro bono work to have increased by 14% from £528m to £601m since last year.

Speaking to the Law Society-supported Gazette, Caplen — who is apparently keen to make “access to justice a theme of his tenure” — linked the pro bono growth to the government’s funding cuts, stating:

“Legal aid cuts and wider funding cuts are chipping away at access to justice. The latest figures on pro bono work are a sign of how solicitors and firms are committed to helping those who need legal advice.”

It’s the comforting sort of narrative of which justice secretary Chris Grayling himself would doubtless approve. And he’d positively love this headline from the Gazette.

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But delve beneath the surface and it starts to unravel …

According to other pro bono surveys and some law firm reports, around 80% of pro bono work is done for organisations rather than individuals. And while lawyers’ assistance to these charities and NGOs is undoubtedly very valuable, it doesn’t directly assist people whose legal representation has been removed by the government’s cuts.

Indeed, experts reckon that volunteering by lawyers to help individuals hit by the cuts may actually be falling. This is not because the lawyers don’t want to help — rather, funding for law centres and advice clinics has been slashed to such a degree that the old framework for this sort of pro bono no longer functions very well.

As a result, solicitors and barristers are being directed instead to give their time to larger organisations with which they can more easily work. “It is misleading to claim that pro bono is increasing as solicitors fill the legal aid gap,” South West London Law Centres operations manager Alasdair Stewart told Legal Cheek, adding:

“Although I have not seen any reduction in my organisation, given that not-for-profits are closing across country it is almost inevitable that free legal work for individuals is falling as there are no longer the community contacts to tap into to facilitate this work.”

Stewart also took issue with the Law Society’s use of an hourly rate of £253 to calculate its pro bono survey figures.

“That rate is the correct one for charities, which regularly benefit from free legal advice provided by corporate law firms,” he continued. “But it is not appropriate to measure advice given to individuals, where the average legal aid rate is £58.”

A Law Society spokesperson said:

“The £601m estimate cannot plug the gap left by cuts to legal aid. Our estimate is based on average charge rates of more than £200 per hour — far more than is paid in legal aid cases. The research is very clear that pro bono is provided to charities and community groups as well as individuals.”

The Law Society Gazette — whose previously hard-fought independence from the Law Society hierarchy has increasingly been called into question in recent years — did not respond to Legal Cheek‘s request for comment.