THE launch of the charity LawWorks Scotland last Thursday represented an important step forward for the provision of legal services in Scotland, and I will be delighted to become its first patron when I step down from office in May.
The LawWorks charity has been successfully running in England and Wales for several years, and it gives me great pleasure to see it introduced in Scotland.
For anyone not familiar with its work, the charity co-ordinates, develops and encourages the provision of pro bono legal services. The fact that this pro bono charity has been launched during the European Year of Volunteering is entirely apt.
Pro bono work is something that I feel passionately about. I firmly believe that all of us in the legal profession should use our skills and expertise to serve the community in which we practise.
The need for pro bono services to be widely available has never been greater than it is now. The ongoing economic situation continues to put even greater strain on those who would ordinarily struggle to meet any legal costs that they may find themselves facing.
It is this need, and the belief that everyone should have access to legal advice regardless of their financial position, which continues to inspire my support of pro bono services.
I am happy to say that the momentum for pro bono work which we have seen building up in Scotland over the past couple of years is continuing to grow. This was evident at the conference which I hosted last May, where lawyers and third-sector representatives got together to share their experiences of pro bono and discuss ideas for expanding this.
There have been a number of developments since then. Inspired by the success of Strathclyde University's award-winning student-led advice centre, the universities of Dundee and Aberdeen have followed suit and established their own clinics. Likewise, the University of the West of Scotland has teamed up with Renfrewshire Law Centre to open a clinic in Paisley. The Law Centre movement has expanded into Fife. Government lawyers have established their own pro bono network, supporting Citizens Advice Bureau legal advice clinics in Edinburgh.
These will complement the established providers, including Citizens Advice, university clinics, and Faculty of Advocates' Free Representation Unit, plus the corporate social responsibility programmes run by increasing numbers of private firms of solicitors.
I am convinced that if LawWorks Scotland receives the full backing of the legal profession and works constructively with voluntary-sector agencies, it has an opportunity over time to make a real difference in the free provision of legal services across the country.
Pro bono legal assistance is in no way a substitute for a properly funded system of legal aid. Legal aid practitioners should not feel threatened by pro bono.This type of work has been shown to bring a number of benefits to the firms and individuals who provide it, both on a professional and personal level. Very often, pro bono advice can lead to referral to legal aid firms in order to pursue the issue further.
Pro bono work can be varied, and may include providing legal advice to a charity, or helping individuals with legal issues relating to housing, employment, health issues and other social problems. Lawyers who use their skills and experience in this way find it hugely rewarding.
As well as making a huge difference in people's lives, a great deal of personal satisfaction is derived from putting aside some time for pro bono work.
I hope that in accepting the role as patron of LawWorks Scotland, I will be able to continue to raise the profile of the charity and encourage others to get involved. You might even find me turning up on the rota of volunteers at a legal advice clinic near you.
Scottish lawyers have a long tradition of working to ensure people are treated fairly and have their rights respected. It is over to the legal community, now, to show its support to cover the unmet legal need which we know exists.
• Elish Angiolini is The Lord Advocate