Shereener Browne, winner of the 2010 Sidney Elland Goldsmith Bar Pro Bono award addressed Lincoln’s Inn Hall on the growing importance of Pro Bono work.
When I started my career at the Bar back in 1996, my pupil supervisor who was by then a jaded criminal practitioner, told me among other things that I was joining a dying profession. Apart from making me feel a bit like a Jedi Knight – it did cause me to worry a little. But only a little. As the years passed and I became focussed on the progression of my career almost to the exclusion of everything else, I eventually forgot those words, filing them away with other snippets of advice like, “don’t wear trouser suits” and, the perhaps more dubious: “never eat while your jury is out”.
I happily carried on: specialising in crime up and down the country and generally ignoring the doom and gloom stories I would at times overhear in the robing room. One regular warning came from a barrister, many more years call than me who, every time I saw him, usually in the barristers’ mess at Snaresbrook Crown Court, would march up to me and say in a mock cross voice “what are you doing here? Haven’t I told you to leave crime and do something else?” I would always look straight back at him and declare “but I love it!” The truth was at that time I could not imagine another existence. There I was, the daughter of a mechanic and a dress-maker, going into battle against some of the top legal minds in the country. I was living my dream – if you exclude the one about co-starring with Irene Cara in “Fame”.
Years passed and then along came Sir David Clementi’s review published at the end of 2004 with recommendations aimed at tighter regulation of the legal profession. By this time I was married with two small children, and although the writing was clearly marked on the wall – particularly in relation to the future of the Criminal Bar – I again chose to ignore it. Adopting that time-honoured approach of some at the Bar – to bury one’s head in the sand.
Hot on the heels of Clementi came the Carter Review in 2005. Bringing with it sweeping recommendations for changes to Legal Aid procurement in criminal cases and other areas of law. I began to sit up and take notice. In an interview with BBC News London around that time, I commented that one of the perhaps unintended effects of the reform would be the flight of talented lawyers to other areas of law, and a decrease in the number of minority barristers staying within the profession. Challenges were mounted against the reforms to Legal Aid that followed the 2005 Review; but the notion of access to justice free to all at the point of entry, had been struck a death blow.
A third child and an economic recession or two later, and my hand was finally forced. 2009 was crunch time. Do I leave the profession that I had grown to love (albeit in an unrequited way) to seek a 9 to 5 with a guaranteed income, holiday pay, paid sick leave and with a decent pension? Or do I stay. I realised, with a heavy heart that there was no future for the publicly funded Criminal Bar in particular and, some would say, the publicly funded Bar in general. But in spite of the fact that all arrows pointed clearly towards the “Exit” signs, I chose, rather like the captain of the Titanic and unlike, it seems, the captain of the Costa Concordia, to stay on at the Bar. That is where Pro Bono work came in.
I had a long history of working in the volunteer sector: working part-time in an advice centre advising, in the main, recent immigrants to this country from theCaribbean. Having been a pupil, working long hours for little or no pay was not an entirely new concept to me. However, I now considered doing pro bono work not only for the good of the community (the literal translation of the term), but to help me make a career change.
There are many advantages to doing pro bono work; other than helping one to learn a new area of law. There is the obvious feel-good factor that goes along with doing any good deed. I have found that at times, in sharp contrast to my paying clients, pro bono clients are usually very grateful and demonstratively so, for the help they receive.
There is the opportunity to argue novel and at times important points of law in cases that for one reason or another, you would never have had the opportunity to argue, but for the client’s lack of finances.
And so then to 2010. At the end of last year Kenneth Clarke announced a plan to reduce the Legal Aid budget by £350 million. And although those plans appear to have been put on hold at the moment, this is little more than a stay of execution. Lady Justice will, I’m afraid have her day in the gallows. This will undoubtedly lead to more and more litigants seeking pro bono advice and representation.
Courts and Tribunals have already begun to feel the effects of past cuts to the Legal Aid budget. Although there will be the immediate benefit of easing the pressure on the public purse; there will also ultimately be a heavy price to pay as a result of those proposed cuts. As Joe Public is forced to go it alone and navigate, captainless, through the sea of litigation, there will be more cases with little merit coming before the courts and more cases that will take longer to hear due the absence of good and timely legal advice.
Finally then, I guess the reason I have been asked to address the Hall – other than to strike fear into the hearts of new barristers and, as living breathing proof that not all barristers are middle aged, white males (although I am middle aged) – is that I am evidence that the Bar has a future as a true specialist advocate referral profession. And, incidentally to urge every one of you, if you are not doing so already, to engage in pro bono work. Not just at the beginning of your career but throughout your career. And to encourage you, in some small or perhaps even big way, to give back to the communities in which you live.