Afua Hirsch nails it in this article for the Guardian about the importance of legal aid. But that’s not primarily what this post is about. What has got me back on my virtual soapbox in the middle of my favourite telly programme is the offensive remarks of the Justice Minister quoted in that article. Afua Hirsch states that “Pro bono legal advice and representation, senior Conservatives have argued, are an important part of a lawyer’s civic duty. Jonathan Djanogly, the justice minister in charge of legal aid, has even suggested that it would be a good way of keeping busy women who wanted to return to work from maternity leave,” before going on to quote Mr Djanogly at a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference saying “Pro bono can be a good filler for those lawyers out of work, or women who want to get back into the legal job market after having children.” The insinuation is that pro bono can somehow fill the gap left by the decimation of legal aid. It can’t.
For a government that spends so much time banging on about fairness to suggest that those who are not earning should be the ones to offer their legal skills for free in order to subsidise the fourth pillar is just crazy talk. For that government to suggest that the most vulnerable group of lawyers should at the most vulnerable time in their career devote to unpaid work, that they even could afford to do this (especially in the brave new world of no child benefit, no child tax credits, rising inflation etc etc) is a demonstration of a complete failure to understand the legal market. For law students and newly qualified lawyers without family commitments pro bono may be a step towards paid work in the law. But the same does not apply to women returners. Legal aid solicitors are struggling desperately to keep afloat at the best of times, and the minute a woman returner is back she will be under the same pressure as everyone else to make billable hours, to pull her weight and to keep the firm afloat. Legal aid barristers are self employed and – I speak from experience – have to return to work in order to keep the money coming in and to keep the mortgage paid. This quote betrays both a world view that sees legal aid work as inconsequential, unimportant, not “proper” law. It suggests to me that on some level there may be a perception that the women lawyers who are expected to carry out that work and their clients are equally unimportant. That may not be the intention behind his remarks, but Mr Djangoly is a government minister and a lawyer and he should engage his brain before opening his mouth.
Don’t get me wrong, I have done pro bono work, and I will do so in future. Right now though, I’m focusing on reestablishing my career, paying my mortgage and trying to find a little time each day to see my babies. Working for free is just not on my agenda at the moment and as we legal aid lawyers have to do more and more work to stand still on the income front the affordability of doing freebies is reducing along with the will to do it – don’t forget we effectively work at vastly discounted rates day in day out for our legal aid clients. Pro bono work is a positive tradition in the legal profession and long may it continue, but it cannot and should not be relied upon as a mainstay mechanism for ensuring access to justice.
Incidentally, the comments are well worth a read on this article.