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Pro Bono Legal Services

Volume 611: debated on Thursday 26 May 2016

4. What recent steps he has taken to promote (a) public legal education and (b) the provision of pro bono legal services. (905096)

7. What recent steps he has taken to promote (a) public legal education and (b) the provision of pro bono legal services. (905099)

8. What recent steps he has taken to promote (a) public legal education and (b) the provision of pro bono legal services. [R] (905100)

11. What recent steps he has taken to promote (a) public legal education and (b) the provision of pro bono legal services. (905129)

As Government pro bono champions, the Attorney General and I continue to support, through our co-ordinating committees, a number of projects that reinforce how important pro bono work and public legal information are, not just domestically but internationally.

Clearly the actions of certain lawyers bring the profession into disrepute, but thousands of people across the country achieve justice through pro bono work. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that lawyers who give their time free of charge are helping justice in this country?

In the last financial year, £601 million-worth of work was provided pro bono by lawyers in private practice—that is, barristers, solicitors and legal executives. They recognise that the time they give makes a real difference to people who would otherwise be denied access to justice.

Small community-based charities that provide services such as community transport, luncheon clubs and after-school activities play an important role in our society, but they often operate under immense financial pressure. What is my hon. and learned Friend doing to encourage more law firms to provide pro bono legal services to those small charities, to help them cut their running costs and focus their resources on making a difference in our communities?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. It is right to pay tribute to the existing pro bono commitment by the legal professions, working alongside the voluntary sector, to providing trustee support and other advice to a range of local charities in both her constituency and mine, and in many other communities the length and breadth of the country.

Does the Solicitor General believe that public legal understanding has caught up with the legal changes in relation to sexting and revenge pornography?

Public legal education has an invaluable role to play. I have seen at first hand in schools how the Citizenship Foundation, with the support of lawyers, runs sessions on issues such as social media and the law. The particular issue that my hon. Friend raises is extremely sensitive and important to young people in particular, and I believe that running the appropriate courses can teach them about the consequences of such criminal acts.

The legal profession may have its detractors, but one of its finest traditions is that lawyers are encouraged to undertake pro bono work. What more can be done to take pro bono work into our schools, both in Dorset and across the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, as a barrister of some distinction in the south-west, speaks from experience about his work and the role of pro bono in the profession of which he and I are part. I urge him to liaise with law firms in his constituency, which he will know well, to spread that work through schools and colleges in his part of Dorset and the wider area.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) will put that tribute on his website in a matter of minutes.

I thank the Solicitor General for his replies on this topic. How can the Government further help the efforts of charities such as LawWorks, a pro bono legal advice service supported by the Law Society that targets the most needy and has offices across the UK?

My hon. Friend is right to mention LawWorks, which has been an active member of the pro bono co-ordinating committee for several years. Since October 2014, the Ministry of Justice has provided funding for the litigant in person support strategy, which is designed to help third sector organisations deliver increased support to litigants in person. I am sure that he will put that on his website.

I have done a fair bit of pro bono legal work in my time as well. It is often a substitute for inadequate access to legal aid, which was greatly cut under the last Government. Will this Government consider using interest on client account for legal aid? Each solicitor in private practice has to have a client account in which the client’s money is kept separately and earns interest. In some jurisdictions, such interest is used to fund legal aid. The Government should consider that for England.

I appreciated the constructive part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, and my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice should look at the idea. I am cautious about compulsion, however, because one of the great things about pro bono is that it is voluntary. It is all very well for him to criticise the Government for cuts to legal aid, but he will remember, because he was a Member of Parliament at the time, the so-called Access to Justice Act 1999, when a Labour Government destroyed civil legal aid, so I will not take lectures from the Labour party.

I have always been a supporter of pro bono work—both while I was a practising barrister, before I entered this House, and since—but does the Solicitor General agree that because pro bono work is voluntary, as he said in his last answer, that is precisely why it could never be used as a policy solution to sort out the Government’s cuts to legal aid?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, neither the Attorney General nor I—nor, indeed, the Government—advocates pro bono as a substitute. It is an adjunct to legal aid, and it always should be.

Nobody will deny the worth of pro bono, and everybody will welcome it, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) said, it is no substitute for access to justice. So that we know which areas get that justice, will the Solicitor General agree to publish a list of how many hours of pro bono are available in each geographical area? That would help us to know whether there is access to justice.

With respect to everybody who works in the pro bono area, I do not want to detract from the important work of pro bono by pretending that it is somehow a legal aid service. It is not; it is voluntary. It is a vital part of what it is to be a lawyer. Not only does it provide a benefit for those whom it serves, but it is an important part of the career development of lawyers. The Conservative party is committed to funding our legal services, and we are spending just short of £2 billion a year on legal aid. It sits very ill for the Labour party to lecture us about the amount we spend on legal aid when it merrily cut legal aid while in office.

I declare an interest in that my wife is a part-time tribunal judge and legal aid lawyer.

We all praise the work of lawyers who give up their time to offer advice and assistance, just as we praise law centres and citizens advice bureaux, but does the Minister agree that those individuals and organisations cannot possibly fill the gap left by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012? In April 2010, more than 470,000 people received assistance on social welfare matters. Just 12 months after LASPO, the number was down to 53,000—a drop of 90%. Will the Minister please urge the Justice Secretary to bring forward the promised review of LASPO?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Again, although I think it is absolutely right for us to celebrate the work of barristers, solicitors and legal executives in providing pro bono work and public legal education, this country still enjoys one of the most generous and widespread legal aid systems in the world. That is something of which we should be proud and which we should celebrate. It is absolutely wrong for the Labour party to seek to take the moral high ground given that I watched it cut the legal aid system during its 13 years in power.