This, in case it had escaped your attention, is National Pro Bono Week. Certainly the subject has been in the news lately.
The Government Legal Service for Scotland launched its Pro Bono Network at the end of last month. The Lord Advocate is hosting a conference on the 23rd to "showcase" current provision and encourage further participation. And last night, Strathclyde University's Law Clinic held an event to mark its plans to expand an already impressive service.
The principal speaker at the Strathclyde event was Lord Phillips of Sudbury, solicitor, Liberal Democrat politician and President of LawWorks (formerly the Solicitors Pro Bono Network, which he founded). A character, you could say, with strong views on the complexity of the law today and the resulting ultra-specialisation of lawyers, not to mention the whole contemporary culture of money making and bonuses.
He was however anxious to dispel the view sometimes expressed that encouraging the growth of pro bono will only encourage Government to cut back on legal aid provision. The problem with legal aid (in England & Wales), he maintained, was its "grotesque underfunding", together with the gap that has developed between legal aid rates and private practice rates – as the Government has been told from all sides.
Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini and director of the law clinic Professor Donald Nicolson, who also spoke, agreed that law clinic advice could not and should not be expected to take the place of legal aid, but pointed to the vast unmet legal need which legal aid may well not be able to touch at all, where law clinic-type advice may yet be essential if the public are to receive help at all.
Taking law clinics on their own, it is surely the case that they can barely scratch the surface of unmet legal need, whether in Scotland or the UK, and yet they bring great benefit (by way of experience) to those who advise in them, and usually (by way of result) to those whom they are able to assist. And looking at the wider pro bono picture, I believe the big firms down south that have organised pro bono teams often take up cases that would not fall within the scope of legal aid.
It should not be difficult to target pro bono activity so as not to take on clients or cases that would appear to qualify for legal aid. So we should welcome and encourage any initiatives of this nature, while at the same time keeping up the pressure on Government to enable the legal aid system to remain as a vital pillar of access to justice in this country.