An Introduction to Pro Bono

What is Pro Bono?

’Pro bono’ comes from the Latin phrase ‘pro bono publico’ which translates to ‘for the good of the public.’ In the legal industry, pro bono relates to work undertaken by lawyers on a voluntary basis without seeking payment.

There are many different forms of pro bono work, with most focussing on the provision of free legal advice to those who are unable to get the support they need. However, other projects include improving minority access to the profession or providing legal education to the public.

Why is Pro Bono Important?

Legal Aid Cuts

The Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 established the modern legal aid system, which sought ‘to provide legal advice for those of slender means and resources, so that no one would be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right; and to allow counsel and solicitors to be remunerated for their services.’[1]

Access to legal aid was limited by merit tests to ensure that only the most deserving individuals were supported. However, in recent years the scope of legal aid in the UK has been drastically restricted, as the cost to the taxpayer was considered too high. For example, in 1986, the annual cost stood at £419m, which increased to £2.2bn in 2010 despite entitlement cuts.

Following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, ‘large areas of civil legal aid were deemed out of scope and removed entirely from any legal aid coverage. These included most cases involving housing problems, family law, immigration, employment disputes and challenges to welfare benefit payments.’[2] Unfortunately, these changes resulted in a significant decline in those eligible for legal aid. Whereas ‘originally 80% of the population qualified…some now suggest as few as 20% of people are entitled.’[3]

Pro bono is one of the ways that the cuts in legal aid can be addressed directly by the profession, and the democratic right of individuals in the UK to access justice can be protected.

Benefits of Pro Bono Work

There are a variety of personal benefits of pro bono work for aspiring lawyers. Whether it’s going into the community to educate the public about a particular area of law or assisting a qualified lawyer in providing advice on a particular case, your legal knowledge and client-interaction skills will be enhanced.

For an aspiring lawyer, the ability to develop legal skills and knowledge while serving the needs of the wider community is invaluable. Pro bono work is a fantastic way to help you stand out when applying for a training contract or pupillage, as it demonstrates a broader interest in the legal profession above merely studying a law degree and shows your ability to interact with people from various sectors of society. In an increasingly competitive industry, this can be the difference between securing the job of your dreams or not.

Many commercial firms across the world are recognising the importance of pro bono work, with some removing the distinction between billable hours and unbillable, pro bono hours. This means that a lawyer’s contribution to the firm is not viewed only in terms of billable hours, but also by the amount of pro bono work they undertake.

How to Get Involved

There is a wide range of pro bono initiatives to get involved with. Whether you decide to set up your own initiative at University or in your local community, or join an existing program, here are a few useful resources to get you started:

https://www.allaboutlaw.co.uk/law-careers/pro-bono/national-pro-bono-week

https://www.allaboutlaw.co.uk/law-careers/pro-bono/pro-bono-opportunities

http://www.nationalprobonocentre.org.uk/

https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/support-services/practice-management/pro-bono/introduction-to-pro-bono/

For more information, please get in touch via email, at harry.hughes1997@outlook.com

[1] White Paper preceding the legislation on Legal Aid

[2] The Guardian, ‘Legal aid: how has it changed in 70 years?’ (26 December 2018), available at <https://www.theguardian.com/law/2018/dec/26/legal-aid-how-has-it-changed-in-70-years>, accessed 2nd May 2020

[3] The Guardian, ‘Legal aid: how has it changed in 70 years?’ (26 December 2018), available at <https://www.theguardian.com/law/2018/dec/26/legal-aid-how-has-it-changed-in-70-years>, accessed 2nd May 2020

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