Pro bono legal support is more important than ever – Mungo Bovey

It is crucial to the Rule of Law that as many people as possible are able to assert their legal rights, says Mungo Bovey

Mungo Bovey, QC, is Convener, Faculty of Advocates’ Free Legal Services Unit

It had been a long, drawn-out battle for Kirsty, taking her case through the Employment Tribunal. The emotional rollercoaster lurched from delight at winning to feeling crushed on learning the other side planned to appeal.

With support from Strathclyde University Law Clinic, she had secured a finding of unfair constructive dismissal and had been awarded £5,391. She felt justice had been done. But it could all be lost at the Employment Appeal Tribunal, where the playing field appeared somewhat lopsided.

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While her former employer had counsel briefed to argue the appeal, Kirsty faced the prospect of appearing on her own or with the help of a law student. She felt enormous relief when the Faculty of Advocates’ Free Legal Services Unit (FLSU) agreed to assist.

One of the unit’s volunteer Advocates took on the appeal, appeared for Kirsty at a hearing via video conferencing, and succeeded in having the appeal dismissed. She was so grateful “for an incredible service in securing justice in my case”.

For centuries, Advocates have accepted as part of their public duty that they should sometimes represent without payment those who could not otherwise afford to vindicate their rights.

The modern manifestation of the pro bono commitment is the FLSU, established in 2003. The Unit draws on the entire Scottish Bar – Queen’s Counsel, Advocates and devils (trainee Advocates), many of whom find time in their schedules to provide up to three days of free legal advice in all areas of the law and representation in any court or tribunal in Scotland.

Cases are referred to the FLSU through 37 accredited agencies such as Citizens Advice, university law clinics and welfare rights groups around Scotland. Not all cases can be taken on by the FLSU, and there are criteria which have to be met. The aim is always to ensure that pro bono work is carried out to the same high standard as if the case were funded.

The ethos of the Unit is perhaps best summed up by one of its volunteers: “The work of the FLSU helps right the balance where individuals would have otherwise had to face a professionally represented opponent on their own. The reward in doing such work lies not in the outcome but in helping that person present and argue their case in the best manner possible.”

Pro bono legal work is always only an adjunct to, not a substitute for, a proper system of publicly-funded legal services. The Faculty and its partner advice agencies are committed to working for the improvement of publicly-funded legal advice and representation for appropriate cases.

Kirsty’s case is the latest in a list of successes enjoyed by the FLSU. Others include helping to save a town’s library; fighting for disabled access to a churchyard; winning an increase in a divorced woman’s capital payment from £8,177 to £50,000; and establishing that a disabled couple had been wrongly refused entry to a nightclub.

Another case involved a woman who had been abused as a child. Her mother began a claim for criminal injuries compensation but, for various reasons, the case was never brought to a conclusion. Then, a solicitor was appointed to intervene, and he sought assistance from the FLSU. A settlement for a six-figure sum was negotiated with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, ending the case 24 years after it started.

At the start of November, we will have the 19th Pro Bono Week, celebrating the work many lawyers in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK do free of charge to secure access to justice for people in deserving cases. In this year of unprecedented challenges, for both the voluntary and legal sectors, pro bono legal help has never been more important.

The Faculty is pleased to restate its commitment and that of its Advocates to pro bono work through the FLSU. It is important to the Rule of Law that as many people as possible are able to assert their legal rights. We are proud of what we have done in the past, and will continue to offer the kind of “incredible service” which means so much to people like Kirsty.

Mungo Bovey, QC, is Convener, Faculty of Advocates’ Free Legal Services Unit

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