The grant of licences to alternative business structures (ABSs) should be contingent on firms agreeing to undertake pro bono work, a Liberal Democrat peer suggested last night.
At a question time that followed the opening of the 13th annual pro bono week, solicitor Lord Phillips of Sudbury said the move could help ensure lawyers in new enterprises help to meet the vast unmet legal need and preserve the professional ethos of law firms.
Legal Services Board chief executive Chris Kenny refuted any suggestion that ABSs undermine pro bono, pointing out that in order to get a licence firms have to promote access to justice.
Of the 330 or so ABSs, Mr Kenny said, the overwhelming majority are law practices which changed their structure to broaden their ownership or get external funding.
“ABSs have not been a wholesale revolution, but have accelerated evolution,” said Mr Kenny, stressing that the professional ethos has been retained and a ‘professional/business divide’ had not happened.
Challenged on what the legal regulators could do to encourage the uptake of pro bono work, Mr Kenny said they should be aware of anything that gets in the way of firms trying to do pro bono, but said he would be reluctant to support any special regulatory regime.
But he added: “Pro bono should not be a regulation-free zone. You can’t have law for the poor which is cheap and free and ever so slightly rubbish.” Social welfare law, he said, is as complex as the work done by City firms and people advising on it must have the right skills to do so.
Regulators, he said, have to make sure the same expectation of standards and professionalism are met and enforced by lawyers working pro bono.
On the obligation to promote public legal education, Mr Kenny accepted it was the “most difficult” objective for regulators to fulfil. “There is a body of evidence emerging regarding what works, but no one has put forward a strategy,” he said
Justice minister Simon Hughes told the debate that it should not be acceptable for public legal education to be put in the “too difficult box”.
Citing government initiatives to improve it, he said that by this time next year all statutes will be available online. “It’s a starting point so people can find out what the law is,” said Mr Hughes.
Demonstrating the need for advice to be delivered differently sine the government’s legal aid cuts, the minister noted: “There is going to be no growth in the foreseeable future under any administration in the funding for legal aid – that has been made clear by the government and the Labour Party.”
But he highlighted the announcement made last month to develop a court advice system and pilot a telephone advice service to help those unable to afford a lawyer.
But director of campaign group Justice Andrea Coomber said the £2m pledged by the government is “never going to be enough to meet the level of unmet need”.
Ms Coomber said the move was a sticking plaster to cover what in reality was a “gushing wound”.
Opening the event, Frances Edwards, president of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, said support for pro bono work is “more important than ever”.
“We have reached a tipping point as legal aid has been retrenched. There is an increasing number of people without advice or who are not equipped to pursue claims at all.”
While stressing that “pro bono is no substitute for legal aid”, she said the legal profession “cannot and will not stand by and do nothing”.