An influential think tank has called for the introduction of compulsory pro bono for lawyers, set at 10% of their “work output”.
The call follows justice secretary Michael Gove’s comment in a speech last month that “much more” needed to be done to encourage pro bono, particularly by commercial lawyers.
ResPublica, which has been linked to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, also proposed that newly-qualified lawyers should swear oath on qualification to “re-assert a sense of vocation”.
In the report In Professions We Trust, ResPublica said a mandatory pro bono obligation, set at 5% of “work output” for legal aid lawyers and 10% for everyone else, could generate 30 million hours of free advice for the public every year in England and Wales.
The think tank said that for many lawyers, the law had become “no more than a revenue-generating business”. This could undermine the profession’s vocation, “grievously harm” its ethics and was a “major source of public hostility”.
ResPublica went on: “A mandatory pro-bono obligation regulated by the professional bodies could help inculcate an understanding across the profession that the law is not just a business but also and most importantly a vocation.
“This measure would build public support and provide far greater access to justice.”
On swearing an oath on qualification – with the Chartered Institute of Legal Executive already does for newly qualified fellows – the think tank said that this, combined with a “new emphasis on ethics in legal education and training”, would reassert a sense of vocation and “help to re-establish bonds of trust” between clients and lawyers.
“Oaths are, of course, just part of the answer, but they do provide a visible public confirmation that what people are seeking in their legal advisors is something that they have sworn to provide.
“A qualifying oath would further affirm professionalism through making clear the code of conduct to which lawyers are expected to adhere.”
ResPublica also proposed the introduction of a “duty to mediate” for solicitors and barristers, in both civil and criminal cases.
This would take the form of a duty to “assess for mediation in every case and where appropriate actively promote out-of-court settlement”. In civil law, there could be “penalties” for those who unreasonably refused this course of action, while in criminal law it could be “tied to restorative justice principles”.
In his speech last month, justice secretary Michael Gove attacked commercial lawyers for failing on pro bono, and said the status quo was indefensible.
“Many of our leading law firms have committed to give 25 hours pro bono on average per fee-earner each year. That is welcome, but much more needs to be done. Last year, according to a survey by the Law Society, 16% of solicitors in commerce and industry provided an hour or more pro bono work.
“When it comes to investing in access to justice then it is clear to me that it is fairer to ask our most successful legal professionals to contribute a little more rather than taking more in tax from someone on the minimum wage.”