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The luck of the draw
Law Society Gazette – 2 March 2006

While many lawyers are willing to work pro bono, and the not-for-profit sector is growing, funding legal projects is not easy. Mark Smulian reports

It might be unjust, but the public does not normally associate the word 'free' with legal advice - not least perhaps because of the use of the phrase 'pro bono'. Lord Woolf may have backed a change to 'law for free' a few years ago, but it has not taken off.

Pro bono work is, of course, well established in the profession, while the not-for-profit sector is growing in importance amid legal aid cuts. But to get the most out of this, something more than the willingness and enthusiasm of volunteer lawyers is needed - money, in some cases, lots of it.

There is a cost to supporting solicitors who offer free advice - either in addition to their private practice work or in the not-for-profit sector - whether in delivering their services, or perhaps to physically get them to where they are needed.

Fortunately, help is at hand for those who know where to look - as the Solicitors Pro Bono Group's LawWorks project, which has just won a 190,000 award from the Big Lottery Fund, can testify. However, for many lawyers attempting to finance legal advice projects, fundraising can seem an arcane mystery.

It is not a matter of rattling a collecting tin in a pub. It is more a case of working out which will be the most promising sources of finance to approach, what those sources will look for, what will impress them, how they will expect their money to be used, how they make decisions and how long they take to do so.

An entire profession has grown up around this, and most major charities will employ specialist fundraisers. The various arms of the legal profession offering free legal advice have also had to find their way around the bureaucratic thickets involved.

This is probably hardest for those who live or die by gaining funding, such as law centres. Steve Hynes, director of the Law Centres Federation, explains: 'All law centres employ several sources of funding from quite a diverse range.' These include the National Lottery, the Legal Services Commission (LSC), local authorities, and LawWorks, the operational name of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group.

Law centres are generally funded by the LSC, and most get some money from their local authority. 'It is a skill in itself to write funding applications and a lot of law centres are geared up to look for new sources of funds,' Mr Hynes says.

For example, Bury Law Centre received a grant from the John Getty Trust for a project to provide legal services for asylum seekers. 'This trust is noted for being willing to give money to "unpopular" projects that otherwise would not get funds,' he says.

Another example is the Bridge House Trust, administered by the City of London Corporation, which derives its money from the investment centuries ago of the tolls formerly charged for crossing the capital's river bridges. The trust will make grants in London, and has given the federation a 135,000 grant for a young persons' legal development worker.

Although most local authorities will give grants to law centres, an unusually large one last year came from Kirklees Council, which gave 100,000 to set up a law centre with matched funding from the LSC.

It provides a social welfare law service in employment, housing, community care, and mental health.

Councils are likely to specify that any money it provides is to be used for a particular purpose - usually social welfare law - and are less keen to give awards to help law centres meet their normal running costs. Mr Hynes says: 'It is not easy to juggle funding streams. There is no guarantee that you are going to hit the criteria that a funder wants. 'Many practice managers have a fundraising role as part of their responsibility, and deal with lottery and charitable funds. It is part of a law centre's job to know how to apply.'

One very law-specific source of funding is the Law Society Charity, which has allocated hundreds of grants worth more than 5 million to organisations which promote access to justice and the rule of law since it was set up in 1974. In the past year, those benefiting include the young witness support programme run by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; Voice for the Child in Care, which runs a training course for advocates on the rights of children in penal institutions; and Gingerbread, an advice line assisting lone parents with queries on housing, debt and family law.

Law Society President Kevin Martin says the charity 'enables many organisations to carry out vital work which they might not otherwise be able to do'. He adds: 'The charity reinforces the tradition of solicitors helping people who are unsure of their rights or alone and vulnerable. I hope the charity continues its good work for many more years and solicitors appreciate the value of its contribution to society.'

But as well as being a source of support, the Society also secures funding of its own to carry out important projects with an international angle. According to Alison Hook, Chancery Lane's head of international, most funding for this comes from the European Union, which has numerous aid programmes, though most require organisations in at least two member states to be involved.

There is also some funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the British Council.

Ms Hook says: 'For projects for the British Council and FCO, we look for experts to take part. For example, we are about to seek people to help with review of the civil procedure regime in Tanzania, and to work with the Bar Council on a penal code review for Malaysia, and on developing a code of ethics for lawyers in Vietnam.'

EU funds can take a long time to arrive. It has taken two years to secure money for the British Pakistan Law Council, a group of lawyers from the UK and Pakistan who work together and wanted to set up a project to help them give legal advice to children in detention in Pakistan. She says: 'There are a lot of different stages, from concept note through to assessment, and it can take time to get a fixed view.'

Aegis 2005 is an EU criminal law project designed to look at rules of evidence in overseas countries. It began in 2004 but took so long to get approved that it has only started work this year.

'To get EU funding, you have to be an established not-for-profit organisation with articles of association, so realistically it is better for anyone with an idea to go through an established channel like the Law Society,' Ms Hook says.

The Law Society Charity gives smaller donations, typically 12,000 or so, which 'even on a 1 million project is very useful', she adds.

One of the most active and skilled bodies at sourcing funding is the International Bar Association (IBA), which runs an outreach programme open to both solicitors and barristers, says its chief executive Mark Ellis. It sends legal experts abroad to 'build up capacity, legal education, databases, whatever is needed'.

Volunteers take time off from their firms on a pro bono basis but receive a small payment, as well as travel, accommodation and insurance costs. Lawyers work abroad for anything from a few months to a year, and some help 'without ever leaving their desk, by making submissions to courts abroad or sending letters about human rights in countries where lawyers or the legal system are being abused by the government'.

There are also 'missions to countries where we have identified a crisis because of overt attacks on lawyers or the rule of law, and we will assemble a high-powered team to report on what is happening', Mr Ellis says.

Fundraising is needed to meet the expenses of this work, and donors include the Open Society Institute, which is backed by the philanthropist George Soros, and which has worked with the IBA to open a human rights centre in South Africa.

Other important donors are foreign governments, in particular that of Sweden, and the UK's Department for International Development, which has funded training for Iraqi jurists.

Mr Ellis says: 'Funders look for a specific project, and it is more difficult if you go to them and just say you want to work on human rights without having a specific idea of what you want to do. We can say that if we get funds, we can leverage the legal community and get some of the very best people to work pro bono, which is very attractive to funders.'

He says applications need not be unduly lengthy or bureaucratic but 'each is different, some are more onerous than others but they are all do-able. You have to know what each funder is interested in, and that can be quite specific'.

Whether solicitors want to give advice for free in the back streets of Britain or the townships of the Third World, there is money to support their altruism - if they know where to look.

Mark Smulian is a freelance journalist