Fatima Bhula, Pro Bono Connect executive officer at LawWorks, discusses how solicitors and barristers are working together to improve access to justice
We are living in uncertain and challenging times – never has the need for access to justice been greater than in this coronavirus-centred world. The challenges posed by the pandemic create difficulties not just for the clients seeking legal redress, but also for the lawyers who support them. Lawyers have a long tradition of supporting clients on a pro bono basis; both LawWorks (the solicitors’ pro bono group supported by the Law Society amongst other funders) and Advocate, formerly the Bar Pro Bono Unit, have existed for over 20 years. However, finding the time to provide pro bono support during incredibly busy periods can be difficult.
“A good opportunity to work in a different practice area and court.”
Litigation work requires a significant commitment – both in time and energy – and this can be a factor preventing litigation solicitors from taking on cases in the first place. Pro bono cases that do commence sometimes come to a standstill when there is a need for more complex advice or advocacy which the solicitor is not able to provide. Barristers, although wanting to help their pro bono clients, may not have the resources or, sometimes, the entirety of skills to pursue the case further.
Making pro bono work for you
In an ideal world, pro bono solicitors and barristers would be able to collaborate on pro bono cases as they do for fee-paying cases. Barristers should not need to spend excessive time on tasks that solicitors have the expertise to complete quickly. Likewise, solicitors should not need to go far to find a friendly barrister to advise pro bono – the Pro Bono Connect scheme aims to make this ideal a reality.
Pro Bono Connect works to establish links between barristers and solicitors on pro bono cases, so they can work together for the benefit of individuals, charities and community groups who cannot afford legal advice or representation, and for whom legal aid is not available. The scheme was set up in 2015 by Jamie Goldsmith QC of One Essex Court Chambers, after he encountered exactly the difficulties described above and challenges trying to balance pro bono with other work.
“It has been less stressful and much more fun to have solicitors to work with, and they have been invaluable.”
After a successful launch and several years of growth, supported by an executive committee, the scheme came under the governance of LawWorks in late 2019. It is now managed by an executive officer, in collaboration with Advocate. At least 42 firms and 47 chambers now participate in the scheme, which is constantly expanding and evolving to welcome new members and diversify the areas of work covered.
The scheme is a simple one; a barrister can request assistance from a solicitor by filling out a form outlining the nature of the case and the scope of the assistance required. This form is then distributed to a panel of solicitor members who can bid to offer their help. If multiple offers are received, the barrister and client select whom they want to work with. The request can be for a short piece of discrete work, such as taking a client’s witness statement or completing disclosure, or for more general assistance such as preparing for a hearing.
How the scheme works
The Pro Bono Connect scheme is currently free to join. There is no obligation to accept any cases nor any onerous requirements. Member firms should adhere to the Pro Bono Protocol, and trainees and other staff should be appropriately supervised (see paragraphs 2.5, 2.6 and 2.8 of our Pro Bono Protocol).
The scheme follows these simple steps.
- The requesting lawyer sends in a completed request form with brief details about the case and the scope of assistance required, which we send out to the appropriate members.
- Members have up to 48 hours to express interest in the case. If there is more than one offer, the client and requesting lawyer select their preference.
- The selected firm has a further 48 hours to clear conflicts and onboard the client.
- Once completed, the connected solicitor and barrister work together in the normal way.
- When the scope of work is completed, there is no obligation to remain involved in the case, although some firms choose to continue to act for the client.
Benefits of pro bono
There are many benefits to litigation solicitors in carrying out pro bono work in this way and the scheme covers a range of litigation practice areas, so there is a wide variety of work on offer. Recent cases have covered property, chancery, breach of contract, defamation, data protection, employment, immigration, human rights and regulatory law to name a few. There will already be a specialist barrister involved, therefore it can be particularly interesting for more junior lawyers to become involved in newer areas of law and develop their skills in these new areas (subject to the expectation to comply with the Pro Bono Protocol).
Often, requests are for short, one-off pieces of work – so would not involve a huge time commitment. It can be a good way to work on manageable pieces of pro bono alongside other work and can also help foster new relationships with counsel that the litigator or firm do not normally work with, enhancing their network.
“I don’t know where I would be without the support of both solicitor and barrister.”
Solicitors can also seek assistance through the scheme, so if there is a need for counsel’s advice, or for representation at a final or interlocutory hearing, this can be requested by completing the aforementioned request form. Requests for barrister assistance typically receive several offers within a matter of hours; barristers value the opportunity to work with experienced litigators in a range of firms. It may not be so daunting taking on a litigation case pro bono if there is a clear route to collaboration with counsel.
Pro Bono Connect prides itself in creating successful collaborations. We work with the requesting party to ensure we have all the relevant information to match the cases to the most appropriate lawyer. Pro Bono Connect matched its 100th case in November 2020 and receives an average of four requests a month – the scheme actively encourages applications for pro bono costs orders, which are paid to the Access to Justice Foundation to support pro bono and not for profit projects. We are grateful to the organisations which have helped us to fund the scheme so far, namely the Access to Justice Foundation, the Farrer & Co Charitable Trust, and the Simmons & Simmons Charitable Foundation.
Pro Bono Connect in numbers (March 2021)
- 42 member firms
- 47 member chambers
- 117 cases placed
- Over £80,000 in pro bono costs ordered, and over £50,000 paid]
What about the clients? There are huge benefits to pro bono clients if they are supported by a solicitor and a barrister like any fee-paying client. It can encourage early settlement, and better outcomes at trial. There have been many notable successes, including in the Supreme Court. These include recovery of defrauded funds, saving vulnerable clients homes from predatory lenders, protection of charity’s intellectual property, preservation of rights to family life and free speech, and gains in employment tribunals for unfair dismissal following disability and race discrimination – clients speak very highly of the scheme.
As lawyers continue to change how they work, perhaps from home as necessitated by the pandemic, or more flexibly or part time, there may be more opportunities to assist clients pro bono. Pro Bono Connect can help litigators make the most of these opportunities.
In the words of Jamie Goldsmith QC, founder of Pro Bono Connect: “It’s good for your practice. It’s good for your soul. It’s good for society.”
Where to get more information
If you have any questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.