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Pro bono: making a difference to people's lives

17 May 10

Lord Advocate writes on the importance of pro bono work, ahead of the 14 May conference

by Elish Angiolini QC

Charles Dickens famously wrote in Bleak House that “the one great principle of the law is to make business for itself”. But in my experience, most people do not enter the legal profession simply to make money.

When we become lawyers, we adopt a core set of values and ethics, a crucial element of which is about serving the community and protecting the interests of those who would otherwise be left with no voice to demand justice.

Fortunately the legal profession has a long tradition of offering its services "pro bono" – for the public good.

I firmly believe that all of us in the legal profession should use our skills and expertise to serve the community in which we practise.

There is a real momentum and appetite in Scotland just now for expanding the provision of pro bono services. It is for that reason that I am hosting a conference this week – on Friday 14 May – which will explore the current provision of pro bono services in Scotland and examine the potential for doing more.

With the other Commonwealth Law Ministers, I made a commitment at our conference in July 2008 to promote pro bono activities in our own countries.

The provision of pro bono legal assistance is a worthwhile and important element of legal practice, and allows deserving cases who could not otherwise afford it to have access to legal services.

Let me state from the outset: this is in no sense a substitute for a properly funded system of legal aid. But there will always be cases and situations which are not covered by the legal aid system, where legal assistance is needed.

The provision of pro bono assistance can play a vital role in enhancing access to justice while allowing lawyers to “put something back” and to make a real difference to people’s lives.

Pro bono work comes in all shapes and sizes. Most commonly it takes the form of volunteering at a legal advice centre, dealing face to face with clients, but it can also encompass provision of training to voluntary organisations or provision of advice to such organisations on more corporate matters such as employment or charity law.

There is also scope for “virtual volunteering”, that is, undertaking research or other legal work to support, say, an international human rights project, in a way which involves only email contact with the commissioning organisation.

Volunteering as a charity trustee is another possibility. While this role does not have to be fulfilled by a lawyer and therefore would not be regarded as mainstream pro bono work, it is nevertheless one where legal skills can be useful and the experience gained thereby in strategic management and finance issues is equally valuable for a lawyer.

Pro bono can make a real difference to people’s lives. There are many marvellous initiatives in Scotland under which legal services are provided pro bono – for example, through Citizens’ Advice and university legal advice clinics and through the corporate social responsibility programmes run by many private firms. The Faculty of Advocates operates the Free Legal Services Unit.

Last year, there were some notable achievements for pro bono in Scotland.

For example, Strathclyde University Law Clinic won the award for “Best Contribution by a Law School” in the UK-wide LawWorks & Attorney General Student Awards. And Ian Moffett of Anderson Strathern launched an initiative to establish a Scottish arm of the legal charity LawWorks.

LawWorks is the body which arranges the provision of pro bono lawyer hours to frontline advice agencies such as the citizens’ advice bureaux. The Government Legal Service for Scotland Pro Bono initiative, announced in October, is another fine example which aims to operate as a mini LawWorks within the GLSS community.

I am also greatly encouraged to hear that companies and organisations are increasingly providing staff with the opportunity to take part in pro bono.

Giving staff the chance to participate in this work not only benefits the recipient of the legal advice, but also the individual providing it and ultimately their employer.

From personal development, enhanced understanding of how other organisations work, and general broadening of skills and experience, the benefits are wide-ranging.

The provision of pro bono legal assistance remains a worthwhile and important element of legal practice.

I am immensely proud of all these initiatives, and I would like to encourage all legal professionals to get involved.

Elish Angiolini QC is the Lord Advocate
 

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