City lawyers can’t agree if they should fill the legal aid gap

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By Katie King on

National Pro Bono week kicks off with a disagreement about Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s grand plan


Top City lawyers are divided about whether it is their responsibility to plug the legal aid gap and do more work for free — as advocated by Justice Secretary Michael Gove.

The launch of National Pro Bono Week yesterday was marked by debate between those who espouse the traditional UK approach to pro bono (that it’s a nice optional extra) and those who back the US philosophy (that all lawyers should do it, and be ranked on how much they contribute).

Gove is, as has been widely reported, distinctively American in his pro bono views.

Representing the British traditionalists at the official opening of the five-day long celebration of free legal advice was Ian Christian, a partner in the medical negligence team at Irwin Mitchell‘s London office. He believes that, by cutting legal aid, the government is simply pushing work away from those most skilled to deal with it — legal aid lawyers.

Pushing for corporate lawyers to do more to help was Heidi Newbigging, corporate social responsibility manager at the London office of Mayer Brown, a global firm with roots in the US.

Newbigging pointed out that English lawyers do comparatively little pro bono work compared to their American counterparts. Across the pond, lawyers are recommended to do 50 pro bono hours a year, although many don’t reach this. In England & Wales the average is 22 hours per year, however of those who do pro bono, the average is 52 hours annually.

While Christian pointed out that City firms are, in spite of their wealth, not the most knowledgeable about the problems facing the neediest of society, Newbigging suggested that lawyers often find excuses to avoid pro bono work.

Also in attendance at the Law Society yesterday to do the official opening of what is the 14th National Pro Bono Week was Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC. Contradicting the recent pronouncements of his colleague Gove somewhat, Wright underlined the distinction between pro bono — legal services that are provided for free to those unable to afford or otherwise access them — and publicly funded legal work, which is free to the individual but chargeable to the Legal Aid Agency:

I am aware that there is still a common misconception about pro bono,” said Wright, a former criminal barrister at No5 Chambers, “but let me be clear that pro bono is an adjunct to, not a substitute for legal aid funding.

Other lawyers at the event tended to take the traditional British view of pro bono. For example, Legal Services Board chairman, Sir Michael Pitt, largely agreed with the sentiments expressed by Irwin Mitchell’s Christian.

Andrew Donovan, board member of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), noted that lawyers, whatever their specialism, have a duty to act within their area of expertise, and just because they are bright doesn’t mean that they can advise on all areas.

Meanwhile, Bar Standards Board boss Dr Vanessa Davies claimed that it was “facile” to assume that top commercial lawyers can pop down to the local law centre and advise on social welfare and immigration law.

Legal Cheek’ s picks for national pro bono week

This week is National Pro Bono Week, and there’s lots going on to get involved with.

You can Tweet your support using the hashtags #NPBW2015 and #WeDoProBono.

There are also events happening up and down the country. Highlights include:

• Designing better access to justice services for the future
Tuesday 3 November 2015
Co-hosted by LawWorks and Innovation Unit.

• BPBU Open House
Wednesday 4 November 2015
Hosted by the National Pro Bono Centre.

• Birmingham Student Conference
Thursday 5 November 2015
Organised by BPP University Law School and the University of Birmingham.

• International pro bono: harnessing UK expertise to make a difference globally
Friday 6 November 2015
Hosted by Berwin Leighton Paisner.