Pro bono vs legal aid?
Looking back on 2011’s UK National Pro Bono Week, Elizabeth Baraka thinks about the role of pro bono in a world of cuts, austerity and discontent. Is it a means to an end, or an end in itself?
Pro bono is often lauded for its satisfying by-products – and I’ll readily point these out to those who are hesitating about getting involved – interesting work, stretching questions, new experiences, closer contacts with colleagues and clients, opportunities to develop skills, great for your CV and great PR for the firm. It’s good and right that these things are enjoyed and used as selling points – but in my mind they are not enough.
All these benefits could be obtained in other ways. And some really worthwhile pro bono work does not tick all these boxes.
However, my biggest concern goes deeper. If we only focus on these things, we do a great disservice to the very people and organisations pro bono usually seeks to help.
Because it says that a world such as this is OK.
Because, in saying how wonderful pro bono is, we can fail to acknowledge howheinous it is that it needs to exist at all.
I’m saying this so strongly because, in certain contexts, there is, I think, a danger that we over-promote pro bono work, when it doesn’t recognise the bigger picture, when it’s done in such a way to fail to hold governments to account for their responsibility in providing access to legal advice.
I like a recent suggestion by Nic Patrick from DLA Piper of pegging pro bono to government spending on legal aid. Why don’t we – collectively – do a “deal” with the government, where we say: “if we the private sector start doing more than x amount of pro bono work, then you government agree that you will fund more legal aid – and that if you don’t, then we will stop doing more pro bono”? So it doesn’t become more pro bono, less legal aid, but more pro bono and more legal aid.
This is particularly important for international pro bono services like ours, where we are increasingly encouraging lawyers in every country to do pro bono work. We must be careful how we are framing what we are advocating, celebrating the vital importance of pro bono but looking towards a world where it is no longer a necessity.
Elisabeth Baraka is A4ID’s Projects Officer and manages our pro bono broker service.