Pro bono is needed more than ever before

Established to coordinate the Bar’s pro bono effort for those who cannot obtain legal aid and cannot afford to pay, the Bar Pro Bono Unit’s service is now needed like never before.

Rebecca Willkie Bar Pro Bono Unit
Rebecca Willkie, chief executive, Bar Pro Bono Unit

Since the latest cuts to legal aids were imposed in April, we have seen a 28% increase in requests for help. And things are only set to get worse.

We are well aware of the criticism from some quarters that pro bono lets the government off the hook, but we do not accept government funding, we screen all cases to ensure they are not eligible for legal aid — and it is a sad truth that there are hundreds of thousands of people who simply have no other means of accessing justice.

It is not only the immediate recipients who benefit from the provision of professional legal services free of charge; what is also served is the idea that justice should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their financial status. Without this universal access, confidence in the system and its integrity may be undermined.

It is no exaggeration to say that the proper administration of justice therefore owes much to the willingness of the profession to act pro bono in certain cases. The number of members of the Bar volunteering through the Unit pays testament to this. We coordinate a volunteer panel of more than 3,300 barristers, including one third of all QCs. The range of experience within this panel ensures that a case will only be allocated to a barrister who has the skills that would be expected if the case were being carried out on a private basis. 

But we must be realistic: pro bono means are finite. They have to be used carefully and, as a result, we put considerable effort into ensuring the Bar’s capabilities are directed to the most deserving cases. 

The current dismantling of the legal aid system means the Unit can expect to take on a hugely increased range of activity nationwide. Increasing pro bono provision on the scale required, but without exhausting limited resources and without compromising the quality and reputation of the service or the profession, requires all to play their part.

We are not asking those with legal aid practices to step forward. They are already doing pro bono work on a daily basis for the majority of their clients.

But we do ask others to contribute. Is it possible to balance the demands of a dedicated practice with making a significant contribution to the wider community? Undoubtedly. Thousands of volunteering lawyers show this to be the case.

Rebecca Wilkie is chief executive of the Bar Pro Bono Unit