Pro bono services “cannot keep up” with post-Covid demand

Waljee: We are not even scratching the surface

Demand for pro bono legal assistance has accelerated dramatically since the pandemic started and providers cannot keep up, leading lawyers said this week.

Held to mark National Pro Bono Week, the panel debate on pro bono past, present and future, heard how demand had “gone through the roof” for certain kinds of advice, such that it overwhelmed the resources available.

Participants agreed that pro bono was inadequate to meet current legal need and that only a fully funded, well supported, legal aid system could provide the necessary expertise to deal with it.

Yasmin Waljee, international pro bono partner at Hogan Lovells and co-lead of the firm’s social impact practice, reported her firm had seen a five-fold increase in welfare benefit appeals.

“While we can try and address some of it, there is absolutely no way that we are even scratching the surface of that legal need,” she said. “The truth is, it needs a comprehensive legal aid commitment to that.”

She added that, when the pandemic hit, the firm had tried to a “tech approach, with chatbots and the rest of it”. But it was inadequate to the task: “The complex need required individual advice and that needs to be funded.”

Kirsty Thomson, co-founder of JustRight Scotland, the nation’s legal centre for justice and human rights, said Covid-19 meant demand was increasing.

She gave the example of a legal helpline for victims of gender-based violence. Demand for help had “gone through the roof”, she explained. “We have hundreds and hundreds of calls at the minute that we just cannot answer.”

There were three reasons for this: firstly because of demand, secondly “we are spending longer on the phone because the issues are more complex”, and thirdly the sector in Scotland had been chronically underfunded.

Emma Rehal-Wilde, a recently appointed law lecturer at London South Bank University who spent 12 years working in pro bono management within the legal sector, said pro bono had become a test bed for technology in the delivery of free legal advice.

In future this would be a “huge factor in addressing unmet legal need”.

However, she agreed that “pro bono cannot exist in a vacuum”. She added: “It relies on a fully funded, well-supported legal aid environment and climate… In order to have a strong pro bono sector, you actually have to have a strong legal aid sector as well.”

Meanwhile, a US technology company that provides what it says is the first infrastructure platform for law firms to manage pro bono work launched this week in the UK in partnership with Clifford Chance and US firms Akin Gump, McDermott Will & Emery, Vedder Price, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and Winston & Strawn.

The six firms already work in the US with Paladin, which enables firms to manage and track pro bono work while creating curated lists of opportunities for lawyers based on their individual interests and preferences.

“Leveraging technology to increase access to justice globally has always been Paladin’s vision,” said Kristen Sonday, Paladin’s co-founder and chief executive.

“We’re thrilled to take the next step towards building global pro bono infrastructure with our UK launch.”

Clifford Chance said that, in the first year of using Paladin, it nearly doubled the number of pro bono hours delivered and increased the number of community organisations it works with, while at the same time saving around 100 hours of administrative work.

It has also allowed the City giant to review feedback on pro bono mandates, see which skills the work has helped develop in volunteers and “get a real sense of which areas are continuing to interest our lawyers”, said pro bono director Tom Dunn.

“We believe it is important not only to do good, but to be smart about how we do it, and Paladin is the perfect partner for any law firm chasing the same goals. With just a few clicks, Paladin better matches those with skills they want to offer to those in need, leaving everyone better off.”

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