In celebration of Pro Bono Week 2023, Lincoln’s Inn member and Advocate Chair Sharif A Shivji KC, and Advocate Trustee Malvika Jaganmohan outline the importance of pro bono work in the contemporary legal landscape and the exciting career opportunities that it presents to junior practitioners.
The Bar has a long tradition of ‘pro bono’, namely the practice of providing legal assistance free of charge to those who are unable to afford lawyers. 6-10 November 2023 marks the 22nd annual Pro Bono Week, a celebration of the invaluable voluntary contributions of the legal profession and a crucial opportunity to encourage and promote pro bono. This year, the themes of Pro Bono Week are: changing lives through pro bono, maximising its impact and its place within Environmental, Social and Governance strategy (from climate to sustainable development). Events are being hosted across the country by chambers, firms, law centres, universities and more.
Over their remarkable history, the Inns of Court have held a central role in establishing and maintaining the tradition of pro bono.
Take the celebrated anti-slavery case of Somerset v Stewart (1772). Mr Somerset was a slave who was being held on a ship in the Thames, bound for Jamaica. His friends, encouraged by the great abolitionist Granville Sharpe, made an application under the writ of habeas corpus to the King’s Bench to determine whether Mr Somerset could be lawfully detained. The case developed into a battle between the pro-slavery sugar plantation owners and the abolitionists. On Mr Somerset’s side was a young student of Lincoln’s Inn, Francis Hargrave, acting pro bono in what was his first case. It was his standout performance which is said to have won the case, the decision set out in a seminal judgment delivered by Lord Mansfield. The case propelled Hargrave’s legal career; he took silk shortly after and became a celebrated jurist, Parliamentary lawyer and eventually Treasurer of Lincoln’s Inn.
In the modern world, the need for pro bono has never been greater; our society is legally complex and there are significant challenges for litigants (in particular vulnerable ones) in understanding and enforcing their legal rights. The justice system, of which we all play a part, can only operate effectively if ordinary citizens have access to it. Pro bono is not a substitute for a properly publicly funded system of legal aid, but it still helps ensure that the wheels of justice turn.
There are significant potential professional benefits to pro bono, particularly for junior lawyers. Pro bono offers students, pupil barristers and junior tenants the opportunity to expand their knowledge and skill set (including in new practice areas), gain important advocacy experience, have exposure to the judiciary, work on novel legal issues, appear in testing court environments and cases, make connections with senior members of the profession and meet new solicitors. Junior practitioners might find themselves receiving interesting and complex briefs which are unlikely to come their way in the normal course of their practice. Pro bono barristers often find that their pro bono work is important evidence of their skills and can be looked on favourably when they apply for new appointments, such as the Treasury panel, silk or a judicial position.
This is where Advocate, the Bar’s pro bono charity, comes in. We connect volunteer barristers with individuals who need legal assistance across the full range of practice areas and in every type of court, from the Employment Tribunal to the Supreme Court. We are a national charity and have caseworkers in every circuit. We sift cases based on means and merit, with a review process conducted by senior barristers who are specialists in the relevant field. We tend to break a case down into stages and authorise assistance up to a certain point (such as an initial conference or advice in writing or a hearing). That means that when a volunteer barrister takes on the case, the level of the commitment is both known and manageable. The volunteer barrister is under no obligation to take the case beyond that stage unless they are content to do so.
Our pro bono cases can lead to positive life-changing outcomes for the people involved; a home saved, jobs retained, damages received, a parent / child relationship sustained or bankruptcy averted. It does not always require full court representation to achieve these outcomes; the right advice at the right time can have far-reaching effects. Even the simple act of a barrister giving up their time for free to listen and help someone who has lost all hope can have a significant impact. Clients feel heard and respected, which is valuable in and of itself; the power of kindness is not to be underestimated.
Volunteering for cases is an important part of our work at Advocate but there are opportunities for barristers to support us in many other ways too, such as reviewers, on our duty schemes, through education, in our committees and on our new projects.
This year, we have been running the #ProBonoPledge, again encouraging barristers to pledge 25 hours of pro bono in 2023. Our #PupilPledge similarly encourages pupils to pledge one piece of pro bono work in their second six. Last year, a remarkable 356 individuals in 125 chambers completed the challenge, 52 of whom were KCs.
Alongside Advocate, there are many other wonderful charities and other organisations operating in the legal sector. During this Pro Bono week, we applaud their work and the efforts of the many active pro bono lawyers. If you are not yet involved, please join us.
To volunteer with Advocate, please visit: www.weareadvocate.org.uk/volunteer
To find out more about Pro Bono Week 2023, please see: www.probonoweek.org.uk
Sharif A Shivji KC
Sharif A Shivji KC is a barrister at 4 Stone Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn, practising in commercial law. He has had a long association with pro bono dating back to his time as a student at Lincoln’s Inn. His first court appearance was pro bono, as was his first appearance in the Court of Appeal. He founded the pro bono bankruptcy scheme, PILARS, and has been on the Board of Advocate for more than a decade. He is the current Chair of the Board.
Malvika Jaganmohan is a family lawyer on the Midlands Circuit, practising at St Ives Chambers in Birmingham. She specialises, in particular, in public and private children law, and domestic abuse matters. She has volunteered as a panel member with Advocate since her second six of pupillage in 2019, and recently joined Advocate’s Board of Trustees. Alongside her work with Advocate, she also volunteers pro bono with Not Beyond Redemption and Birmingham City University’s Law Clinic. She was nominated for Young Pro Bono Barrister of the Year in the Bar Pro Bono Awards 2020.