It is difficult to think of many businesses or business people who are prepared to offer their professional services free of charge. After all, you wouldn’t call a plumber and expect them to fix your leaking tap for free, would you? Or, to take a rather more far-fetched example, you wouldn’t expect a bank to lend you money at zero interest rate, would you? After all, a business can’t survive if it doesn’t charge for its services.
And yet lawyers are expected to do exactly that, on a regular basis. It’s called ‘pro bono’ or, to give it its full Latin name ‘pro bono publico’ which means ‘for the public good’.
Lawyers have always done pro bono work. I did it myself, for example offering free advice at sessions arranged by the local Citizens Advice Bureau.
Some lawyers, however, have been prepared to offer far more than just a little advice. Marilyn Stowe, for example, took up the Sally Clark ‘cot death’ case free of charge and succeeded in having Mrs Clark’s convictions for murdering her sons overturned.
Since the abolition of legal aid for most family law matters last year pro bono has reached a new level of importance in the field of family law. Without lawyers offering their services for free many litigants involved in family cases would struggle to obtain justice.
Take, for example, the case Re C (A Child) (No 2), reported last Friday. This was the latest judgment in the on-going saga of a father seeking contact and parental responsibility orders in respect of his son (the earlier judgment is here). The matter is complicated because the mother has accused the father of raping her. In the circumstances, it was considered necessary that the father should have legal representation, and that an absence of legal aid would breach his human rights. There was also a very real risk that without the father being represented the court would be unable to deal with the matter justly and fairly.
The father therefore applied for ‘exceptional’ legal aid funding. However, his application had not been determined by the Legal Aid Agency by the time the matter went before the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, prompting him to suggest that if exceptional funding was not granted then the public purse would have to pay for the father’s representation by some other means.
In the event, as stated in the latest judgment, the father was offered legal aid. However, prior to that he had only been represented because lawyers had been prepared to represent him pro bono. Those lawyers, said the President, deserved “recognition and praise”. He then set out some statistics from the Bar Pro Bono Unit, which indicated that it received some 350 applications for help in family law children cases in the first eight months of this year, up from 291 in the whole of 2013, which itself was a 70 per cent increase from the 171 children applications in 2012.
“The profession is doing what it can to help,” said the President, “and that needs to be recognised and applauded. But it is unable to meet the demand.” In any event, he continued, “it is unfair that legal representation in these vital cases is only available if the lawyers agree to work for nothing.”
Quite. No disrespect to those plumbers and bankers, but I’m sure that they would also find it unfair to be expected to work for nothing.
Times are hard for everyone, and that certainly includes many in the legal profession, particularly those whose income has been diminished by the legal aid cuts. Nevertheless, many will still offer their services for free – something that they feel it is their duty to do.
These people don’t seek recognition, and the public seems to be barely aware of what they do. In fact, the legal profession is held in pretty low esteem in some quarters. However, whatever your feelings about lawyers generally, pro bono deserves to be more widely recognised by the public.