Pro bono is derived from the Latin term pro bono publico which can be translated as ‘for the public good’. In a professional and legal capacity, lawyers provide free legal services to members of the public who are unable to pay. Below Francine Ryan, Lecturer in Law and member of the Open Justice team at The Open University Law School, confronts the question as to whether these kinds of services should be mandatory.
In recent times, it has been argued that pro bono should be a requirement of professional practice. In some jurisdictions, such as South Africa and parts of the US, it is a mandatory obligation, all applicants to the New York Bar must complete a minimum of 50 hours pro bono work. In England and Wales, pro bono is a voluntary commitment, which is encouraged by the regulatory bodies of the legal profession. The National Pro Bono Centre is a charity created in 2010 and acts as a clearing house for pro bono work. Each of the bodies has a charity which supports free legal advice assistance:
Pro bono is not a substitute for publicly funded legal services but there is increasing concern that expansion of pro bono encourages the state to allow pro bono work to fill the gap of unmet legal need. The introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 removed whole areas of legal aid funding which has led to a significant rise in ‘unmet legal need’. Broadly speaking, this is when an individual’s capacity to seek legal assistance is restricted because they cannot afford to pay for legal services.
So does the crisis in funding mean we should consider making pro bono mandatory?
The legal profession in the UK has a long tradition of providing pro bono services voluntarily. Making pro bono compulsory changes the nature of the relationship and the motivation of those providing that advice. Some would argue that public funding of legal services is a fundamental obligation of the state and essential to ensuring the rule of law. Therefore, replacing it with the goodwill of voluntary lawyers and law students is extremely problematic. Law is quite unique as no other profession has the same commitment and requirement to provide free services, for example, there does not appear to be a culture of pro bono dental work!
Rather than imposing a minimum number of pro bono hours, promoting a culture of pro bono at University encourages law students to continue volunteering in professional practice. Offering pro bono services is a key contribution that lawyers and law students can provide to support access to justice. There are compelling reasons for law students to volunteer in law clinics and participate in public legal education activities. The opportunity to work with real clients is an invaluable experience and provides a rich environment to develop practice-ready skills. A commitment to pro bono is an important way a law student can distinguish themselves in a highly competitive legal market.
The proposed changes to the way in which solicitors qualify has the potential to add further value to law students supporting pro bono, by replacing the training contract with a period of two years legal work experience. This makes it possible that volunteering in a law clinic will count towards that time period. We are seeing an increase in the number of partnerships between law schools and pro bono organisations, allowing law students to take advantage of a myriad of opportunities. These bring to life what is being learned in the classroom and at the same time giveback to those in need and support local communities.
Embedding pro bono and a commitment to social justice within the law curriculum is an important step towards ensuring pro bono extends beyond law school, but relying on ‘mandatory’ volunteering is not the answer to our access to justice crisis. The legal profession and law students should rightly be proud of their commitment to pro bono. The rush to provide free legal services in the wake of a number of tragedies that affected so many people in cities like Manchester and London is evidence of the desire to help those in need. Pro bono is an important part of being a lawyer but it should remain a choice- the challenge to law students is to think of innovative ways of delivering pro bono to engage more of the profession in providing free legal services.