IT HAS taken a long time, but a free legal advice service is coming to Scotland at last. Early in 2011, LawWorks Scotland will be up and running, giving lawyers a formal opportunity to offer pro bono services to those who need them.
The project has been backed by Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini and the chief executive of the Law Society, Lorna Jack. The society is providing office space at its Drumsheugh Gardens HQ to get LawWorks started.
LWS will operate as an independent, Scotland-based charity, supported by London-based LawWorks, an organisation which last year helped provide free legal advice to more than 40,000 people and around 350 voluntary-sector organisations.
Colin Hulme, a partner in Burness LLP, is a board member of LawWorks Scotland.
"Almost every major law firm in England is a member of LawWorks and it is our intention to achieve an equivalent position in Scotland," he says. "The model is to act as a 'clearing-house' for lawyers. They will register and we will arrange their attendance at advice clinics run by front-line agencies such as Citizens Advice Bureau Scotland, law centres and university advice clinics."
The first big job is finding lawyers willing to offer their time free of charge. Training will be provided to ensure lawyers without relevant expertise can provide the required services, while efforts will be made to establish pro bono clinics in areas where none exists or to improve and expand existing services.
The Lord Advocate, a fervent supporter of pro bono legal services, said: "Scottish lawyers have a long tradition of working to ensure that people are treated fairly and have their rights respected. The unfortunate reality, however, is that there are people who cannot afford legal advice when they need it. Housing, employment, health issues and other social problems can often pose significant challenges, and affording legal advice is particularly difficult in the current economic climate. Pro bono legal services are in no way a substitute for Legal Aid but are invaluable in widening access to justice.
"I welcome LawWorks Scotland as an important step forward."
The Lord Advocate has helped to set up a meeting of stakeholders on Thursday and Hulme recognises the significance of such high-level support: "We very much welcome it and hope we can continue working with the Lord Advocate to help provide access to justice for those who need it most in Scotland.LawWorks Scotland is an opportunity for the legal profession to stand up and be counted, giving something back to the communities in which we practice."
Hulme worked as a CAB counsellor while at university. "I found it really fulfilling," he says. "This is about helping those who cannot afford lawyers to better understand their rights; that's hugely important in empowering people. The power lies very much with people who can afford lawyers."
The Scottish Government has seconded Denise Buchanan as an administrator for six months - she started in October and by April, the project will be flying solo. Approaches to the top 25 law firms have started, but even before the formal process had begun, Shepherd and Wedderburn (SW) was ready to sign up.
Gillian Carty, SW's head of commercial disputes and regulation, explains: "Raising awareness in both the legal and wider community of the availability of pro bono legal advice is particularly important in the current climate when organisations are facing increasing demand at their advice clinics for the services they provide to those unable otherwise to access legal advice.
"We see our participation as being one important way in which our lawyers can use their knowledge and skills to support local communities. The experience that our lawyers will gain will also be very valuable to their own personal development."
Lorna Jack, chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland says: "Solicitors already carry out a great deal of pro bono work, much of it never publicised, and LawWorks will provide a more coordinated approach, as well as encouraging others in the profession to get involved. This can never be a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system, but I'm sure LawWorks Scotland will be welcomed by the profession and public alike."
Hulme is realistic about why LWS in needed: "If the civil legal aid budget was ten times its current size, there wouldn't be much need for pro bono work. We will only be providing advice and assistance, not legal representation."
"It's all about cooperation with existing services: we are working with advice centres already out there. It's about getting the legal community into those centres. LawWorks in England has its own advice centres and that might happen in time here.
"Typically, the biggest firms might nominate five or six lawyers, who will go on the LawWorks Scotland rota - and do perhaps one evening session per month.We might be overrun by lawyers wanting to make time available to help people!"
So where does Hulme see the project in a year's time? "I'd like to see a strong database of lawyers, the biggest 25-30 firms signed up - and be operating in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and moving into Dundee and Aberdeen."
Firms will be asked to put 150 per partner into the LawWorks pro bono pot to run the scheme, which will also involve helping law schools to establish advice clinics and organising conferences, resources and awards programmes - all designed to embed pro bono legal services in Scotland.x