Whether you are a seasoned pro bono provider or just about to take on your first case, Katharine Elliot from 4-5 Gray's Inn Square offers her top ten tips for taking on pro bono work.

  1. Read the papers and make sure the work comes within your competence. If you’re unsure, you can always have a chat with another barrister in your chambers to ask what they think. Remember, there are no solicitors to help you advise the client on any issue which may arise. 
  1. Be proactive in contacting the applicant. Some will get in touch with you directly but others may not and may be more difficult to contact if they rely on phone calls and work during the day. If you are having trouble, ask your clerks for help and, if that doesn’t work, get in touch with Advocate.
  1. Make it clear from the start how Advocate works and the limits of what you have authorisation to do. Most applicants will not understand why you cannot do other work for them outside of what Advocate have licensed you to do (e.g. represent them in court when you have only been given permission to advise them) and sometimes can get upset when you say you can’t help them any further. A gentle explanation about how barristers are regulated and why we can’t act without solicitors apart from as licensed by Advocate generally helps. You should also make it clear that the applicant will have to carry out the litigation aspects of the case themselves. Unless you have litigation training, this is not something you can legally do as a barrister. 
  1. Keep notes of every conversation you have with the applicant. Barristers are good at court attendance notes but, in circumstances where you don’t have a solicitor to help you by keeping notes in conference, make sure you also write down every phone call and in person conference you have and send follow up emails clearly setting out any advice you gave. This helps make things clear for the applicant and makes sure there is a clear paper trail of your advice for future reference.
  1. Make sure that the applicant understands that it is their instructions which count. Sometimes applicants are surrounded with other (generally) well-meaning people who are trying to help them with their legal problems. These are often family members (adult children or partners) and they can sometimes try to dominate the applicant and substitute their own views as to what should be done. Your duty is obviously to the applicant as your client. They are also the person who controls to whom information about their case can be disclosed under the principles of legal privilege. You should make it clear to any third party that, for these reasons, you can only discuss the case with them with the applicant’s permission and that you will only take instructions from the applicant. 
  1. Check your ethics. In circumstances where you don’t have a solicitor to assist you and you may be responsible for advising clients about many aspects of a case that you may not usually deal with (e.g. disclosure and drafting witness statements), ensure you know what your ethical position is so that you can clearly set out what you will and will not do for the applicant. For example, you may find that the applicant has failed to disclose something that comes under the relevant test because they did not want it to be shared with the other side. In that situation, you will have to advise them to disclose the information or document or you will withdraw from the case. If in doubt, call the Bar Ethics hotline or discuss the situation with another barrister in your chambers.
  1. Keep your clerks, as well as Advocate, informed about the progress of your case. Once you take on the case, you have the same responsibility to manage it properly and allocate time for it in your diary as for your paid practice. To keep your clerks happy and to make sure you don’t end up double-booked, put the work in your diary and let the clerks know what you have taken on, any hearing dates etc. 
  1. Don’t forget to advise your client about the costs consequences of their decisions and remember that settlement is almost always an option. Even if you are operating in an area of law where each party bears their own costs, you need to be even more careful with pro bono work to emphasise to the applicant that they may have to invest a significant amount of personal time and money in the legal process and may suffer financial penalties if they lose or fail to comply with court rules. You need to help them make informed choices about this. Sometimes, you can make the most difference by setting out alternatives to bringing a claim, like different options for settlement. You may be the only one not personally or emotionally involved in the issue, so you can really help bring an objective view point to the bargaining table and may help the applicant get a better outcome than going to court.
  1. Make your own pro bono work records. One of the reasons to do pro bono work is that it gives you more experience, perhaps in advocacy if your practice is quite paper based, or in an area of law where you want to expand your practice, so make sure you keep a record of it for CV and applications purposes in the future. You can also win awards based on your pro bono work through Advocate.

  2. Enjoy the experience of making a difference to someone’s life using your skills.  Another reason to do pro bono work is that you can help someone, who may be from a very disadvantaged background, access the justice system in a way that they could not have done without you. The legal world can be confusing and alienating for a lot of people who have not been trained to navigate it and to help empower them to make decisions is incredibly rewarding.