Lawyers are often accused of only being concerned with making money. If that was ever the case then it has certainly changed in my working life.
One problem is that when they do get involved in free legal work for those most in need it gets a Latin name that no-one can understand. To us lawyers the phrase is Pro Bono. To most non lawyers it either means nothing or it is something to do with a well known Irish rock Star! If it was called Free Legal work then everyone would get the picture.
The reality is that many lawyers and their firms spend hours on free work. My first job as a solicitor, in the 1980s was in a Law Centre in what was then one of the most deprived areas in Europe. The centre existed to provide legal support free of charge. We had a voluntary clinic on a Tuesday night at which local lawyers would give 3 – 4 hours of their own time to advise on areas of law not covered by the centre.
Almost 60% of solicitors have provided free legal assistance at some time. There are a number of agencies which co-ordinate this work -
This doesn’t always get the publicity it deserves and the name certainly doesn’t help.
The need for this kind of legal support is going to increase dramatically next year when we experience the most devastating cuts to legal aid since its creation. Those who are most in need from the disabled to genuine asylum seekers to victims of medical negligence are going to find it impossible to access legal support. Some reports show that of those who appeal against refusal of disability benefits as many as 80% succeed if they are represented.
The legal profession faces a dilemma. We have opposed the cuts from the start. This is because we support a society where all citizens have equal access to justice regardless of wealth. I remain of the view that the cuts are misconceived, unfair and a false economy. If lawyers then increase even further the amount of free work then isn’t this doing the government’s work for it? If people continue to access lawyers because it is being done for free then the politicians might see that as a job well done.
That is obviously wrong.
But in the meantime there are still those in need.
There are lawyers who will take up their cases for little or no pay. But that cannot mean that the message will be abandoned. The case for a properly funded scheme available to all is too strong to abandon and this is why the fight will continue.