Michael Gove Calls For Lawyers to Undertake More Pro Bono (Free) Work

On 23rd June 2015 the Secretary of State for Justice, the Right Honourable Michael Gove MP, delivered a speech at the Legatum Institute entitled “What does a one nation justice policy look like?”.
Many people, particularly lawyers, had been awaiting with baited breath as to what changes Mr Gove was planning to propose, especially as he was only appointed to his new position just under seven weeks prior to his speech.

The task Mr Gove has been given by the Prime Minster, David Cameron, seems extremely worthy and above criticism:-

“to make our justice system work better for victims; to deliver faster and fairer justice for all citizens; to make sure our system of family justice safeguards children, especially those at risk of abuse and neglect, more effectively than ever; to make sure the laws we pass provide protection for the weakest; to make our prisons places of rehabilitation which give those who have made the wrong choices opportunities for redemption; to help offenders when they leave custody to make the right choices and contribute to society; to rescue young offenders, and those who may be on the path to offending, from a life of crime; and to reform our human rights legislation better to protect the fundamental freedoms we all cherish.”
Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with the aims of the Government, as outlined above. Indeed, these goals, if they can be achieved, are exceedingly admirable. The difficulty, as usual, is that there does not seem any definite plan as to how the objectives will be tackled.

Mr Gove has correctly identified that there appears to be a two-tier legal system in this country which, on the face of it, is working for the wealthy “who can, for example, choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice”. However, Mr Gove notes that the less affluent, which is the majority of the British population, “has to put up with a creaking outdated system to see justice done in their own lives”.

Mr Gove has called for an urgent reform of the Criminal Courts in order to ensure that the waste and inefficiency of the current system is tackled. He refers to the “human cost” of the system, in terms of the effect of slowness on both victims of crime and also defendants, especially for those who have spent months or even years of their lives in “legal limbo” only to be found not guilty.
The Secretary of State criticises the Civil Justice System as being “too complex, too bureaucratic and too slow”, which increases stress for litigants.

Mr Gove refers to Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division’s, predictions that “applying for probate, or dealing with family separation or divorce could be far more quickly and sensitively handled.” Sir James Munby calls for the “use of plain English, replacing paper forms with simple questions online, and automating much of the administrative process,” in order to resolve issues much faster and potentially without the need for administrators and the judiciary.

In order to assist the poorer members of our society in accessing legal services when necessary, which is often out of reach for a large proportion of the population given the tremendous cuts to the availability of Legal Aid in 2013, Mr Gove called on members of the legal profession to increase the amount of Pro Bono work they undertake. Recognition was given to the fact that many solicitors and barristers participate in invaluable Pro Bono work, but there still appeared to be some kind of expectation that they should be doing more.

In his call for the legal profession to do more Pro Bono work Mr Gove makes specific reference to the fact that he believes that “more could – and should – be done by the most successful in the legal profession to help protect access to justice for all.”
Mr Gove’s proposals may, to the outsider, appear to have some merit, but there are various reasons why they are just not practical:-

  • Mr Gove said that “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.”
  • Many legal practitioners who are considered to be the most successful may not have much experience in dealing with the types of law that the poorer members of society are involved in, e.g. family, care, crime, debt and housing cases. This is, of course, based on the assumption that success is at least partly judged in terms of the amount of money lawyers make as Mr Gove states “those who have benefited financially from our legal culture need to invest in its roots.”
  •  Family law organisation Resolution has openly declared that Mr Gove’s recent call for more pro bono work is “not sustainable”. Various Pro Bono legal services are currently attempting to fill some of the gaps left by the demise of Legal Aid, but it is not possible for the same level of service and intensity of involvement in cases to be maintained when lawyers are not being paid to deal with cases and still have to remain profitable employees/employers in order to cover overheads.
  • Mr Gove is expecting the legal profession to provide free services and to continue to do so, but this just will not work in the longer term and alternative solutions need to be investigated.
  • Comments have already rapidly spread through the legal community that in no other profession or career would people be expected to work for free, on top of the already far-ranging cuts that have been made within the Legal Aid system, including massive reductions in Legal Aid fees paid to solicitors and barristers. For example, if a householder, regardless of how affluent or needy they were, called out a tradesman to undertake work for them, there would never be any expectation or even request that there be no charge for the work.

Emery Johnson Astills is already committed to Pro Bono work and engages with existing Pro Bono Legal Advice Scheme in the Family Courts. As a firm we are also committed to continuing to undertake Legal Aid work for those who qualify under the current Legal Aid Scheme.
The entirety of the Right Honourable Michael Gove MP’s speech of 23rd June 2015 can be viewed at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/what-does-a-one-nation-justice-policy-look-like
If you require legal advice and assistance, please do not hesitate to contact Emery Johnson Astills on 0116 255 4855.