Pro bono organisations should be coordinating how they provide their services

24 Apr

I AM sorry (mea culpa) for the Latin in the title. Pro bono – short for pro bono publico – refers to something done for the public good; pro bono legal services are often provided without their recipient having to pay for them.

While on the topic of jargon, “access to justice” means that citizens ought to be able to obtain necessary legal advice and representation; “access to the profession” means that citizens of sufficient ability ought to be able to join and remain in the legal profession without unnecessary barriers; and “rule of law” means that no-one is above, below, or beyond the law.

These concepts are linked: for example, access to justice may not be possible if there are not enough lawyers practising in underfunded areas; pro bono legal services might not be able to fill the gaps; and the rule of law might thus be detrimentally affected.


According to the Scottish Government’s 2020/21 Civil Justice Statistics publication, almost a third of the country’s population experienced a civil litigation problem during that period, and around 60 per cent of these problems were unresolved. This suggests a substantial unmet legal need with a correspondingly strong indication that there will continue to be a high demand for pro bono organisations to assist in addressing this as effectively as possible where appropriate.

Where the market or publicly funded legal services are not available, citizens may seek help from the “pro bono legal sector”: a giddying patchwork quilt of organisations providing or funding legal advice and representation, including solicitors, law clinics and advice centres.

The pro bono legal sector is notable for the skill, energy, and commitment of the lawyers and others who give freely of their time. Numerous organisations in Scotland offer pro bono legal services to deserving cases for which no form of funding is available, as does the Faculty of Advocates’ Free Legal Services Unit (FLSU).

The FLSU hosted a networking event during Pro Bono Week 2022 attended by Faculty members and other organisations in the pro bono legal sector. The various discussions during and after this event highlighted the FLSU’s impression that there are areas in which the patchwork quilt has gaps, overlaps, and friction.

Attempts to identify these gaps, overlaps, and friction to establish how best to address them are hampered not just by a lack of data, but also by the fact that there are currently few, if any, ways for pro bono organisations to work together to coordinate how they provide their services.

It is with this in mind that the FLSU has extended an invitation to all pro bono legal services providers to a Bringing Pro Bono Together event in June in Edinburgh. The event aims to examine the current need for pro bono legal services; whether and how those services are presently being met; and how best to address the legal need that has not been met by public or other funding in the future.

Those attending are being asked to provide information before the event on the nature of their organisation, e.g. if they are a law firm, advice bureau, university advice clinic, advocacy service, etc. They are also being asked where they are based and whether they offer legal advice and, if so, if this covers a broad spectrum of issues or is specialised advice, for example on welfare or housing issues.

Information is also being sought around whether those attending offer representation, what form that might take and to whom, whether they operate within certain localities or countrywide, and whether their services are criteria-based and what those criteria are. Each has also been asked whether they need pro bono advice, representation, or other support.

The aim is to build on discussions in Pro Bono Week 2022, so that citizens’ unmet legal need is better understood, that the FLSU can provide even more effective legal advice and representation, and that there is greater access to justice. From these small steps we aim to make a positive change to the status quo.

This article was first published in The Scotman.