Labour is planning a state-run national pro bono centre alongside pro bono targets for City firms to meet if they want government contracts, its shadow Lord Chancellor said yesterday.
David Lammy said the aim was to “encourage partnership between the public and private sector” as a future government looked to turn round “a legal system that only serves the rich”.
This would include increasing the funding of legal aid.
In his speech to the Labour conference yesterday, Mr Lammy said: “City law firms are making billions in profit, while low-paid workers see their tax bill rise and wages fall.”
Party officials pointed to the near £2m profits per partner recorded by the equity partners of magic circle firms Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance as examples.
“This party recognises the importance of the private sector doing their bit in partnership with the public sector,” Mr Lammy said.
“That’s why today we are announcing that a Labour government would support the introduction of a new national pro-bono service with binding pro bono targets for firms seeking public contracts.”
The party briefed that City firms would have met the target of at least 35 hours of pro bono legal services per lawyer per year to be eligible for government contracts.
A fully state-run and funded national pro bono centre would promote awareness of pro bono and provide incentives to participate; offer practical tools and resources to reduce barriers and constraints to participating in pro bono; and connect different participants through sharing of best practice and collaboration.
The national pro bono target the centre would encourage would be “voluntary and aspirational” except for those firms seeking government contracts, party officials explained.
The 35-hour target would be open to firms, chambers and individual lawyers to sign up to. There would also be a target of at least 20 hours for in-house legal teams and individual in-house lawyers.
Lawyers on social media seemed unimpressed with the idea, asking why other business would not have to offer free services in the same way, while legal aid lawyers noted that they were already pretty much working pro bono.
The Secret Barrister tweeted: “Pro bono legal services are like food banks: A regrettable necessity to plug holes in a failing system, not a model to aspire to.”
Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce said: “Pro bono is integral to the culture of the legal profession… [but it] should never be a substitute for a properly funded, resourced legal aid and justice system, which is the real solution to providing justice to the vulnerable.
“Lawyers already provide an estimated £7m worth of free expert legal advice per year, with legal aid delivering around £1.7bn’s worth.”
In his speech, Mr Lammy accused the government of “taking justice for granted”, closing 295 courts since 2010.
The Crown Court backlog was at an all-time high of 60,000 cases with some cases taking four years to reach court, he said; legal aid has been cut by 38% since 2010.
“What’s left is a legal system that only serves the rich. In government, Labour will ensure that courts, prisons, the Probation Service, and legal aid are never left so vulnerable again.”
The Tottenham MP and one-time justice minister pledged to fight changes to judicial review and human rights, adding that Labour would legislate to bring the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law.
Mr Lammy said he would also introduce targets “to bring in more women and more ethnic minorities to the most senior positions in our courts”.