My Response to an MP’s request for Pro Bono Assistance for their Constituent…
Yesterday I sent out a tweet encouraging lawyers who receive letters from MPs asking for pro bono assistance for their constituents to refuse the work and remind the MPs of the reason for the increase in constituents having to approach their MPs for assistance. It seems I hit a nerve as I became a ‘Top Tweeter’ for the day…I’m sure the invite to the award ceremony and the plaque (or should I say plague) will follow in due course!
There has recently been media suggestion that MPs offices are at breaking point with the increase of constituents asking for legal assistance. Those of us who have worked in social justice for many years are aware of the cuts which have been made to legal funding over the past 10 years, but that since the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force the system has been at breaking point. Families facing eviction from their homes, workers being paid less than the minimum wage and who wish to bring a claim in the employment tribunal, mothers and fathers fighting for access to their children, are just a few examples of those who are now having to try and negotiate the complex court systems themselves or try and find a law centre where the doors are still open.
My recent experience of cases which I have undertaken pro bono, and which previously had MP involvement is that the claimant has suffered at the hands of an unqualified inexperienced MP or their assistant, such as a constituent providing a copy of the legal advice they had received pro bono to their MP, only to find that the MP sent a letter to the organisation the constituent wished to bring a claim against, and included the legally privileged advice! Other examples are poor advice on the deadlines for submitting a claim so that by the time the constituent submitted the claim form, their claim was out of time, or advice to claim against the wrong person resulting in high wasted costs to the constituent. My general experience of dealing with the MP’s offices are that they are rude, demanding, and have no appreciation for the fact that I also have other clients and that the time I use to undertake pro bono work is actually precious as I try to use it to help as many people as possible, and not to repeatedly send responses to the MP to massage his or her ego.
Hence, I made the decision a while ago that I would not undertake pro bono work for anyone referred from an MP’s office and instead I send back this standard letter. I am happy for anyone reading this to copy this letter and use it.
I acknowledge receipt of your unsolicited letter requesting pro bono assistance for a member of your constituency.
Unfortunately, as I am sure you are aware, both the criminal justice system and the social justice system has suffered scathing legal aid cuts, and in my experience both are at breaking point and only being held together by the goodwill of lawyers and legal caseworkers who undertake pro bono work.
It is a sad reflection on both the Government and the Shadow Government that the invaluable Law Centres and legal centres have seen their funding cut to such a level that, for those which have not been forced to close, they are now unable to assist anywhere near the number of clients who are approaching them for help.
I undertake a very high amount of pro bono work, but have made the decision to support the law centres/advice clinics, Bar Pro Bono Unit, FRU and other charities I endorse, as I consider these to be the most needy, and without the back office support that the privilege of being a Member of Parliament brings.
Hence, I will not be able to assist your constituent in a pro bono capacity. Can I suggest that to best serve your constituents with their legal queries, you make efforts to try and rectify some of the damage that has been done to the social justice system over the past 4 years, afterall it is the power that as a Member of Parliament, you hold in your hands, and a power that us lawyers who are at the coalface cannot wield.
Yours sincerely ”