Working Theory

by Michael Reed

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I do employment law for the Free Representation Unit.

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michael at workingtheory.co.uk

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Pro bono is a good thing, but it isn't legal aid

03 November 2014

It’s National Pro Bono week, which means it’s time for people to write State of the Nation pieces on what pro bono is, what it’s for and where it should be going.

But whenever people talk about pro bono reducing the impact of legal aid cuts or mitigating the damage they cause, it’s worth looking at the statistics. Between 2012/13 and 2013/14, the number of acts of assistance covered by civil legal aid dropped from 925,000 to 497,000 – a loss of 428,000 acts.

Compared that to what can be done via pro bono. FRU does about 700-800 cases a year. The Bar Pro Bono Unit (our main ally / competitor in the field of pro bono representation) probably does about 130% of our workload.1 Then there are a lot of other organisations and a lot of people doing work as individuals.

But we don’t, even collectively, make any real difference to the legal aid cuts. Our work is a tiny speck when compared with the legal aid operation as it is, much less as it was. We’re irrelevant to the whole situation. We just can’t get anywhere near to doing enough cases to make a difference. And there is really no prospect that we ever will.

This doesn’t mean that pro bono is pointless. We do make a difference to the clients we help. That’s worth doing. Not being able to help everyone (or even a significant proportion of the people who need help) isn’t a reason not to help anyone. We can, and should, do what we can.

But it is important to be clear. Not only can’t pro bono assistance replace legal aid; it can’t make a meaningful difference to the ongoing crisis that withdrawal of legal aid has caused. We can help individuals, but ensuring that everyone has access to justice is up to society as a whole, not least because the the only way it can be done is through government spending.

  1. It’s a difficult comparison to make, partly because the BPBU doesn’t release numbers in the same way as FRU. But also because they don’t count their work in the same way – FRU works in cases while the BPBU works in individuals acts of assistance (so a single case might be 2-3 acts). But I think it’s far to say that they do significantly more work than we do, while remaining in the same ballpark.

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