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Community chest

Local government lawyers have much to offer when it comes to the provision of pro bono legal services, argues Rebecca Hilsenrath.

It was good to get a call this week from the head of legal at a council where advice services are being cut back in the wake of legal aid reform and reductions in local authority spending.

Perhaps that remark needs some explanation. Before I get there, LawWorks is based in the National Pro Bono Centre in Chancery Lane and is the country’s leading pro bono agency working with solicitors and in-house counsel to promote pro bono legal services.

LawWorks runs a diverse range of projects. We broker casework for both individuals and community groups, providing a triage service for lawyers so that their time is used to greatest effect. We run Free Law Direct, an internet platform for the provision of remote, anonymised information to those in need. We support and develop free legal advice clinics, with a current national network of more than 130. We develop advocacy projects and provide business law and strategic advice to frontline agencies. We work with key partners to innovate in new areas of emerging need.

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LawWorks is far from responsible for the wealth of free legal advice which is given in this country. Where we focus is the benefits which accrue from a strategic approach and from collaboration.

Pointing the way

Pro bono cannot and must not be a substitute for legal aid and will never replace what has gone. However, working with the Civil Justice Council and other key stakeholders in the legal profession and advice sector, we believe that the strategy going forward needs to be about investment in signposting, ensuring that those in need are directed to the most appropriate form of assistance and that the scant resource of in-depth pro bono casework is reserved for the most truly vulnerable.

All this requires maximum engagement from the legal profession and maximum awareness. And this brings me back to the start of this article.

Talking to in-house lawyers at a recent seminar hosted by the consultancy LBC Wise Counsel, I ventured that one in four members of the Law Society was now working in-house, and was told that the actual figure was one in three. This is remarkable not only for the statistic itself but for the rate of growth, unless declining mental acuity is deceiving me as to how recently I checked the information.

This means that any conversation with the legal profession about access to justice must include the in-house world; it also means that the in-house world must consider the responsibilities which accompany influence and how it can speak to make a difference to those in need. And the local authority sector is one of the key players in that dynamic.

Shared values

Local government lawyers typify the best gift for LawWorks. They have a presence all around the country, they are in a position to help us reach exactly those we need to speak to, they cover the expertise which we seek and, in working for the public sector, they are motivated by the same values which drive the work we do – the need to use legal skills and knowledge to improve the way the community functions.

There is a lot of mythology about the capacity for pro bono work by in-house counsel and the short answer is yes. Yes, in-house lawyers can do pro bono work, provided they have insurance, which LawWorks can provide (along with tailored opportunities and any training required.).

In-house teams will be aware of section 15 of the Legal Services Act 2007, which prohibits the delivery of reserved legal activities for the benefit of anyone other than their employer, where these activities are carried out as part of their employer’s business.

This includes advocacy and the conduct of litigation. We are working with a range of agencies and pro bono counsel to seek possible legislative solutions to this issue. However, it does not prevent the in-house sector engaging in a range of other pro bono activities at a time when the need has never been greater.

Supply and demand

Since 1 April, we have been constantly asked about rising demand for pro bono work and, of course, we are experiencing increasing numbers of phone calls, increasing application rates. But what we see is only the tip of the iceberg – and it comes on the back of a tidal wave of demand which has been growing for more than four years, as a result of the economic environment.

It is hugely beneficial to us that the in-house world speaks with such strong and cohesive voices through groups such as Lawyers in Local Government, the GC100, CLO Programme, and the Commerce and Industry Group. We are very proud of and very grateful for our relationship with these organisations. They are crucial to us in our hopes to speak to as many as possible of their members.

And so I come back to my telephone call. This local authority is aware of the gap in provision in its community and it does not have any easy answers. We do not have an immediate solution, but we know we stand more chance of making a difference for two key reasons – we are being made aware of the local landscape by a key player, and we have an offer of collaboration. It is often all we can ask.

Rebecca Hilsenrath is chief executive of LawWorks

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