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As demand for pro bono assistance soars the Bar is answering the call for the most vulnerable: The Bar Pro Bono Unit reports on the past 18 months

Date:5 NOV 2014
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Kuki Taylor, Fundraising and Communications Manager, Bar Pro Bono Unit

The Bar Pro Bono Unit is a national charity that match-makes members of the public who cannot afford a barrister and cannot obtain legal aid with barristers happy to volunteer their services free of charge. The Unit makes it possible for barristers to balance a dedicated practice with making a significant contribution to the community.
We are the sole pro bono charity to provide legal assistance in all areas of law, across all levels from tribunal through to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. Our panel of volunteer barristers are based across England and Wales, and we now have almost 3,500 barristers on our panel, including a third of all QCs.

The Unit team has seen a huge rise in the number of applications for assistance in family law. The graph above displays more generally the growing number of applications to the Unit from members of the public across all areas of law.

Last year, we received a total of 291 applications from members of the public needing help in family child cases, and 80 for family financial matters. As of 29th October 2014, the Unit had already received 361 requests for assistance in child cases, and 93 for financial cases.

Our growing concern is that we are finding it increasingly challenging to place accepted children cases in London, the South East and the Midlands, in particular. There may be a number of reasons for this beyond the increased demand, including the deeply troubling closure of family chambers and front-line agencies (such as law centres and CABs) which are crucial to members of the public accessing our service, which many view as their last avenue to access justice. Over the past 18 months we have met with referral agencies across England and Wales to listen to our colleagues on the front-line of the remaining free legal advice services. It is no surprise that they too are vastly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of demand for assistance however it is a credit to the sector that the staff remain wholly dedicated to helping those who simply would not be able to navigate through the legal system on their own. The Unit is eager to meet and hear more from both referral agencies and barristers about the challenges they are facing, and how we can work more effectively together to aid the most vulnerable.

The Unit echoes the feelings of the legal profession: pro bono services are not and cannot be an adjunct to a publicly funded and sustainable legal aid system. However, the Unit is not a campaigning organisation rather our crucial role as a clearing house ensures that the valuable resource of the Bar’s time given for free is used to the best possible effect for those seeking access to justice. As an indicator of the Bar’s determination to provide pro bono assistance to those most in need the Unit is almost entirely financially supported by the profession: we do not seek or receive public funding.

Finally, we remain enthusiastic about the service we provide from a small team dealing with increasing numbers of applications; despite this we are still able to place 80% of accepted cases on average. We are also encouraged by the growing number of volunteer barristers joining our panel, barristers who are under increasing pressure to maintain their own practices but find time to take on a Unit case because they believe in the pro bono ethos.
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