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Legal aid: Are City lawyers best placed to plug the gap?

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Shadow Justice Sec David Lammy’s suggestion BigLaw should up pro bono efforts prompts split on Twitter

A hot debate has once again arisen on social media as to whether City lawyers are best placed to plug the gap in legal support left due to cuts to legal aid.

Some legal commenters say City lawyers are trained in commercial law and so wouldn’t necessarily have the expertise to advise on issues such as social welfare, while others argue big law firms have money sloshing about that they could put towards pro bono funding.

The debate came after Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy MP’s suggestion that City law firms should up their efforts to provide free legal support in return for lucrative government contracts.

In a speech during yesterday’s Labour conference, Lammy said the party is planning for a new state-run national pro bono centre alongside pro bono targets for City firms to encourage partnership between the public and private sector.

“City law firms are making billions in profit, while low-paid workers see their tax bill rise and wages fall,” he said. “This party recognises the importance of the private sector doing their bit in partnership with the public sector.”

Party officials pointed to the near £2 million profits per partner made by the equity partners of magic circle firms Freshfields, Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy as examples.

Such a policy would require City firms to have met the target of at least 35 hours of pro bono legal services per lawyer per year to be eligible for government contracts.

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But some lawyers were left unimpressed by Lammy’s suggestion, saying that City law firms are better off funding law centres and leaving the trained experts to do their job.

“Legal aid lawyers have skills and expertise built over many years of experience in their field,” tweeted Hodge Jones & Allen criminal defence partner Raj Chada. “You may think a couple of hours pro bono will cut it but it doesn’t — how about a justice tax instead on wealthy firms?”

Legal affairs correspondent Fiona Bawdon waded into the argument, writing: “What City lawyers have, which social justice lawyers don’t, is spare cash. If they want to support access to justice, they could fund the cost of a case worker or trainee, or towards core costs, so law centres and advice agencies can keep the lights on.”

Bawdon continued: “What social justice organisations don’t need is pressure to accept ‘help’ from junior lawyers, so the big firms can boast about their CSR commitment on social media and can nominate themselves for pro bono awards, presented at ceremonies with ticket prices that just seem bonkers to anyone working in legal aid.”

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: “Lawyers volunteer their time to provide free expert legal advice to the most vulnerable in society on a wide-scale basis and larger law firms have demonstrated a strong commitment to supporting this… However, pro bono should never be a substitute for a properly funded, resourced legal aid and justice system, which is the real solution to providing justice to the vulnerable.”

Lawyers already provide an estimated £7 million worth of free expert legal advice per year, with legal aid delivering around £1.7 billion’s worth. Some City law firms such as Herbert Smith Freehills and Travers Smith have pro bono practices, while others second their trainees out to legal advice centres. Linklaters and Reed Smith, for example, have the option for their trainees to spend six months on secondment to charities and nonprofit organisations.

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