Incredible Pro Bono Week stories show huge impact that lawyers can make

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By Katie King on

From injustice in India to parking problems in Essex, the widespread benefits of pro bono trumpeted during celebratory week


Last week, lawyers up and down the country took time to celebrate the invaluable work done for free across the profession at 2015’s National Pro Bono Week (NPBW).

A legal service is provided pro bono, meaning ‘public good’, when it is done for free — and there are endless examples of good causes that lawyers can get involved in.

From family law at Weil, Gotshal & Manges to medical law at Hempsons, business is booming. In 2014-2015, the total number of pro bono hours worked by private practitioners was 2.1m, the financial value of which is estimated at £592m.

Legal Cheek takes a look back at NPBW, and celebrates some of the week’s greatest success stories.

Speaking at last week’s Friday event at BLP, ‘International pro bono: harnessing UK expertise to make a difference globally’, ex-Fieldfisher lawyer Shireen Irani spoke about the huge changes that lawyers can bring about when they “walk the talk” and engage in pro bono work overseas.

In her liberating speech, Irani — the founder of non-profit online network iProbono — recalled the case of Amal, a three-year-old girl that was attacked and raped by her neighbour in India, leaving her with injuries that would require at least three reconstructive surgeries.

Irani described how the case was, at first instance, “horribly mismanaged”. The Indian justice system is, Irani explained, broken — there is a backlog of three million cases waiting to be heard, 40,000 of them in the Supreme Court.

The Delhi court dismissed the young victim’s testimony. She was taunted and mocked throughout the hearing, with the trial judge asking Amal if she was lying about her attacker’s identification.

Later that year, lawyers whose expertise lies formally in white-collar crime, took on the case in an appeal filed by Amal’s mother, Munira.

Irani notes that there can be “a lot of fluff” in the pro bono world, but cases like Amal’s demonstrate the incredible impact that lawyers can make when they work pro bono.

On appeal, the High Court reversed the trial court’s decision. There was no reason to disregard the child’s evidence, and the court laid down detailed guidance on how children’s testimony ought to be dealt with in future cases.

Amal’s story is a triumph for the lawyers involved, and is a great example of what good lawyers can do for a good cause. Irani — who believes that “if you’re from the corporate world, providing sustained support to a local organisation working in-country is the single most important thing you’ll do when engaging in international pro bono projects” — also pointed out that there are benefits to international pro bono work that extend above and beyond the case’s legal outcome.

The presence of international lawyers cannot just influence legal principle, but can also give the individuals and communities involved in the case a voice and a platform — and this can be just as true closer to home.

Last week, Legal Cheek reported on the recent Supreme Court decision of ParkingEye Limited v Beavis, which saw the tenacious appellant Barry Beavis challenge his £85 parking fine and stick up for motorists across the country fed up of being ripped-off by parking companies.

We caught up with newly qualified Hardwicke barrister Ryan Hocking who, along with John De Waal QC and David Lewis, acted on this influential case on a pro bono basis.

Hocking notes that it is unusual for someone as ordinary as Beavis — a fish and chip shop owner from Essex — to make it to the highest court in the country, but the fact that he is able to do so is testament to our justice system.

The appellant would not, and could not, have made it there without the pro bono initiatives of the barristers and solicitors involved. A three-day hearing at the Supreme Court would have cost Beavis a five, if not a six, figure sum — money that the modest shop owner didn’t have.

And though judgment was given, fittingly in the middle of last week’s pro bono celebrations, in favour of the parking company, the case gave Beavis the chance to have his voice heard and prompted fundamental change in the law of contract — and that wouldn’t have happened without the case reaching the Supreme Court.

Beavis is, according to Hocking, a likeable, well-measured character who fought his case on principle alone, with no desire for the somewhat celebrity-status that he’s now gained. Hocking — who was still a pupil at the time of the hearing — explains:

When rereading the County Court judgment, it’s entirely reasonable to suggest that it was wrong, and to make it right the Supreme Court had to become involved. If judgment was given against you in your case and it’s wrong, you’d want to right it. It’s very good that he was able to do so.

The Beavis story is an example of how far pro bono work can take you — and Hocking believes that everyone should engage with it. He explains:

In the legal world, free work is so important because, to a layperson, the law is a different environment and totally unfamiliar in terms of language. It’s only natural that people don’t know where to turn.

Though he stops short of suggesting that pro bono work should be made compulsory, Hocking questions the motives of those unwilling to engage with it:

Lots of people become lawyers because they like people, and they want to help people. I personally find people interesting. If someone comes to you with a problem that requires legal advice and you turn them away because they can’t afford to pay you, then that’s not really what law is about.

And the real success story of NPBW is that more and more lawyers are engaging with Hocking’s sentiments. With Gove hell-bent on slashing legal aid funding, charities and other not-for-profit organisations have stepped in to plug the access-to-justice-gap feared by so many.

The work of the Personal Support Unit is growing at astonishing speeds. The number of clients helped has more than doubled since 2013-14, the charity forecasting that it’ll help 50,000 unrepresented litigants in 2015-2016.

The number of legal advice centres run by LawWorks has increased by a quarter in the past year to 219, nearly all of which reported an increased demand for their services. In 2014-2015, the number of enquiries received across the network increased by 55% from the previous year, to 43,000.

And it’s not just solicitors and barristers that can take the credit for this — these organisations are dependent on the support of law students. The Personal Support Unit is the biggest provider of in-court work experience, and 69% of former student volunteers reported that the experience helped them secure employment in the sector. 32% of LawWorks clinics are run by law schools, and 45.4% of the 4,589 volunteers that volunteered last year were students.

Student-run initiatives are also full of success stories. Earlier this year, it was reported that 95% of the DWP ‘fit for work’ decisions assigned to law students at Avon & Bristol Law Centre’s ‘Legal Advocacy Support Project’ were successfully appealed. The Cardiff University Innocence Project triumphed in the Court of Appeal in 2014, when their hard graft helped overturn the murder conviction of miscarriage of justice victim Dwaine George.

You can keep up to date with the latest pro bono news on Twitter using the hashtag #WeDoProBono.