As lockdown loomed in March 2020, law firms in England and Wales were preparing to deal with a deluge of pleas for pro bono assistance. Like many companies, NGOs were in a state of shock, urgently requiring advice to react to changing circumstances. Clinics were closed, projects were abandoned and staff were furloughed.
The pandemic has resulted in a monumental shift in the way that pro bono services are provided. The immediate focus of pro bono lawyers was to ensure that the vulnerable in society still had access to legal advice during lockdown. Firms, law centres and universities worked to keep clinics open by shifting to the provision of remote advice. Courts and tribunals followed suit with remote hearings.
Many have celebrated the move to remote working, heralding it as the innovative boost that the pro bono sector needed. Volunteer numbers have soared while drop-out rates have plummeted, time formerly spent travelling can now accommodate additional appointments, and lawyers can advise clients from anywhere in the country. Tech-savvy individuals love it.
But that’s not the whole story. The most vulnerable in our communities include the digitally challenged: those without smartphones, laptops or wifi (or the knowledge to use them). They include those suffering from mental illness, learning difficulties and language barriers. For these individuals, there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings and the proliferation of remote services has left them even more isolated. Advisers must be cognisant of this as the legal sector settles into new ways of working.
Advisers are also experiencing a change in the genre of requests. Traditional queries regarding consumer rights and housing have been eclipsed by a surge in demand for advice on employment and domestic violence. From Mar. 16 to Apr. 12, 1.8 million people claimed Universal Credit, a benefit for people out of work or on a low income. Catering for this change requires agility within the pro bono sector and the acquisition of new secondary (or tertiary) specialisms.
Now, more than ever, we need to work together to satisfy this demand. The UK Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono (created in 2014) has encouraged the sharing of best practices and has contributed significantly to the professionalism of the pro bono sector. The trend of lawyers collaborating to strategically fill gaps in legal need has continued. Birmingham, the North of England and Bristol now have regional pro bono networks, recognising that sharing local knowledge is key to assisting their communities in an effective and efficient manner. In-house lawyers are also mobilising. The In-House Pro Bono Group, established in 2019, has made great strides in increasing engagement by running training sessions and offering pro bono programmes to its members.
There are many hurdles to overcome. It’s up to us to take on the challenge.