In praise of Bristol Pro Bono

In 2020 the Bristol Pro Bono Network finally became a reality, after years of thought and planning from those who knew that the enthusiasm and talent of Bristol lawyers needed better direction so that it could more easily reach those who needed it. I am writing this post as an unashamed plug; I was shocked at a recent meeting to be told that if you search ‘free legal advice in Bristol’ the BPBN doesn’t appear – I have just checked and it isn’t on the first page of google search results. I am hoping that by writing this blog post and linking to the site, I may increase its chances of being found.

And I think it is definitely worth plugging.

The mission of the group is to identify unmet legal need, support the delivery of pro bono advice and share best practice.

We are passionate about access to justice. We encourage lawyers to work with local universities and community groups to deliver free legal advice to individuals who don’t have access to legal advice. Bristol Pro Bono Group works collaboratively to identify not-for-profit organisations working in the public interest who need legal help.

What is pro bono?

The BPBN follows the definition of pro bono used by TrustLaw (found here). In essence – it is legal work done by qualified lawyers, for no fee. ‘Pro Bono’ is taken from the Latin phrase ‘pro bono publico’ – for the good of the public. The Latin phrase is almost certainly a problem in engaging with a wider audience as it isn’t immediately clear what it means, but it is likely we will never shake it now – ‘free legal work’ doesn’t have quite the same ring.

Pro bono work can never be a substitute for a proper system of publicly funded legal services, and some lawyers object to offering pro bono services in case this undermines the commitment of Government to provided proper funding. However, the BPBN believe, as do I, that lawyers have the responsibility to use their professional skills to do their bit for society. The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 removed legal aid from a large range of civil matters, including disputes between parents about seeing their children. This was apparently in the the expectation that such parents would seek mediation to resolve their differences, but such expectations were dashed. Such private law applications are increasing year on year and leading to a huge rise in the number of litigants in person. I have written year about the types of clients who use the Bristol Family Law Scheme which started in 2015 and is part of the BPBN.

This is how it looked in 2017, from 246 clients.

English as a second language65 26%
Likely to be in person199 80%
Mental health problems36 14%
Substance abuse39 16%
Learning difficulties or literacy problems31 13%
Immigration difficulties13 5%
Child abduction14 5%
Violence or sexual abuse of adult or child130 53%
Previous proceedings91 37%
Leave to remove17 7%
Current criminal proceedings10 4%
Reference to other agencies42 17%

It is a poor reflection on our society that such a client base has no ability to pay lawyers privately and no access to Government funded legal aid. Pro Bono work is a small drop in that ocean of need but I think it is important. Not just for the individual who may be helped but for the lawyer who offers help – something outside the daily grind of billable hours, a chance to connect and strengthen our bonds of community.

So if you are in the Bristol area and need legal help, check out the website and the services it offers. The BPBN can offer help in the following areas.

  • Welfare benefits 
  • Not-for-Profit assistance
  • Housing advice 
  • Employment and discrimination advice
  • Family advice
  • Asylum and immigration advice

And hopefully next time I try, we may have made it to page 1 of the Google search results!

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