Gove ignites pro bono debate

Family Law|June 25th 2015

As I mentioned in my post here yesterday, our new Lord Chancellor Michael Gove has suggested that “the most successful in the legal profession” provide more of their time pro bono. I said then that this was neither a new idea, nor one that would do much to fill the gaping hole left by the legal aid cuts. I was going to say more, in particular by speculating what the legal profession might have to say about the suggestion, but I chose not to.

The profession has, however, had a lot to say about it on Twitter, and from what I’ve seen, most of what they have said is pretty negative.

I have already written here previously asking whether pro bono lawyers are playing the Government’s game by helping them ‘get away’ with their policy of reducing the availability of legal aid, a point then raised by a QC on Twitter. Well, they are certainly helping to solve the problem of all of those people now unable to afford access to legal advice and representation. However, whilst that help is substantial, the hole left by the legal aid cuts is far more substantial still and therefore, as I said above, pro bono work will not do very much to fill it. I am not the only lawyer to take this view, as witness this tweet from a lawyer on Twitter, who uses another metaphor:

#Gove’s proposal that pro-bono could ease strain on #legalaid is like saying a plaster will fix a brain haemorrhage.

Along similar lines, another point seized upon was that pro bono is no substitute for a proper legal aid system, as a QC tweeted:

However (enforced) pro-bono work is no substitute for a properly funded Legal Aid scheme for the poorest and most vulnerable

Well said.

Moving on, as I said in another previous post on the subject of pro bono, no other businesses or business people are prepared to offer their professional services free of charge, so why should lawyers? This is a point that has been taken up by a number of lawyers on Twitter since Mr Gove’s speech. For example, one said:

How dare Gove say lawyers should do more free work? Should doctors? Dentists? Builders? Politicians?

And another, with a little more humour:

Pimilico Plumbers being successful plumbers will presumably be urged to do pro bono plumbing for the poor. #Gove

Just because the legal profession has an excellent (and almost unique?) reputation for giving its services freely, that does not mean that it should be taken advantage of. Pro bono work in this country is something that is entirely voluntary, and as such lawyers can choose whether they do it or not. Unless other professions are expected to do the same (after all, we are all ‘in it together’ as ‘One Nation’ aren’t we?), then that should remain the case.

Lastly, in his speech Mr Gove seemed to suggest that all lawyers, no matter what their line of work, should, if they are sufficiently successful, offer their services pro bono. What he seems to forget here is a little thing called ‘specialisation’. For example, City lawyers (some of the most successful in the country, in terms of income) are unlikely to be able to offer much practical advice in connection with the sort of problems faced by the less well-off in society (unless, perhaps, they come across the odd impecunious banker). This was put most succinctly by a well-known blogger on Twitter:

You need properly funded lawyers in the area where people need legal advice, not Hugo from Mergers dabbling in an adoption dispute.


If Mr Gove wants to get the legal profession ‘on side’ then, clearly, he is going to have to try a little harder. He is also going to have to try a little harder to resolve the terrible access to justice problems created by the legal aid cuts that were implemented by the last government, of which he was a prominent member.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. Guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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