With Advocate trustee Eleanor Holland, I run PILARS (the Personal Insolvency Litigation Advice and Representation Scheme). PILARS works with Advocate to match individuals facing personal insolvency proceedings with specialist barristers who can help (often on an expedited basis). Cases include statutory demands, bankruptcy petitions, applications to annul and appeals against bankruptcy orders. PILARS also offers training and guidance to frontline agencies helping individuals with debt problems.

We are privileged to have specialist skills and the financial freedom to work pro bono, and it is central to our vocation as barristers to put that privilege to use to support those who are facing a tricky time.

While that makes the case for pro bono work generally, volunteering for PILARS makes targeted use of our particular insolvency expertise. There are very real barriers facing those at risk of insolvency – and therefore also room for volunteers to make a real difference. The legal regime is complex, as is the practice and procedure that has built up around it. Problem debt is often accompanied by substantial stress and complex emotions, making it difficult for individuals to engage, and clients sometimes seek help very late in the day. Creditors are often more sophisticated and better resourced than debtors.

Volunteering in these cases can help to prevent injustice for people who would not otherwise be able to afford or access suitable assistance and can have a huge impact on the lives of clients and their families, in some cases protecting their jobs, businesses or homes.

In certain cases, the assistance required will be straightforward: help to complete paperwork and to ensure that all the requisite information and documentation has been provided to the court. Cases may, however, require substantially greater involvement from assisting barristers: for example, drafting skeleton arguments, advising on discrete points of insolvency law and practice, and attending contested hearings. On occasion, assistance can involve providing robust advice, preventing applicants from making applications that are doomed to fail and seeking to arrive at compromises with creditors.

The insolvency judges are expert and experienced in dealing with debtors appearing in person, but they are grateful for the assistance PILARS volunteers can provide.

Volunteering in insolvency cases will be even more valuable now, given the additional financial pressures people have faced as a result of the pandemic. Covid-19 has also brought its own share of additional legal complexity because of the various insolvency measures introduced to alleviate the economic consequences of the pandemic.

We strongly encourage our insolvency colleagues to get involved!