The Bar Pro Bono Unit

What is the Bar Pro Bono Unit?

The Bar Pro Bono Unit (BPBU) was established in 1996 by Lord Goldsmith QC. It is the Bar’s national charity which helps to find free legal assistance from volunteer barristers for those who need it.

Who can get help

Pro bono assistance is available to those who cannot afford to pay and public funding is not available; it is, however, a charity with limited resources and therefore cannot help in all cases. You may be able to get help in a case if:

  • you cannot afford to pay for the help you need, or get legal assistance elsewhere;
  • you cannot obtain public funding;
  • your case has legal merit;
  • your case requires the assistance of a barrister;
  • your case involves the law of England and Wales;
  • any one piece of work for which assistance is required will not take more than three days  (although the Unit may extend this over several pieces of work within a single case or exercise its discretion in exceptional cases).

It is primarily aimed at helping individuals, although the BPBU can assist community groups, charities and small companies if it is satisfied that the organisation, or its members, cannot jointly afford to pay, or reasonably be expected to jointly pay, for a barrister. 

What the BPBU can help with

The BPBU itself cannot give legal advice, instead it co-ordinates a panel of 3,600 volunteer barristers and QCs who assist on cases. These volunteers specialise in all areas of law and can assist with any service which they would ordinarily provide in a paying case. This includes written legal advice on a case, legal advice in person, as well as representation in courts, tribunals and at mediation.

Pro Bono Protocol for Legal Work

The Pro Bono Protocol for Legal Work was jointly developed by the BPBU and LawWorks (a parallel agency which helps with getting free assistance from a solicitor). The protocol aims to ensure that pro bono assistance, advice and representation is delivered to a high standard and that a barrister undertaking a pro bono case will be of the same expertise and experience as if the case were being paid for.

Making an application to the BPBU

Applications are not accepted from claimants directly. All applications to the BPBU must be made through either a solicitor or advice agency, such as Citizens Advice or a Law Centre who will assist an applicant in identifying whether a case is suitable for referral to the BPBU.

The Unit requires three weeks notice before any hearing date or deadline. An application form must be completed with all relevant information and copy documents included.

Applications are reviewed by a senior barrister who assesses the legal merits of the case and whether the assistance of a volunteer barrister is needed. The Unit then makes a decision based on this advice, as well as financial factors, how much work is required and, where a solicitor is not involved, whether a barrister is able to assist alone.

The Unit has a licence which enables the client to instruct a barrister without a solicitor, although in some cases the assistance of a solicitor may be necessary. An applicant will only receive help on a step by step basis; the case is constantly reviewed by the Unit to consider further requests for help in light of any advice/ representation already provided.

Where an application is rejected, the Unit gives written reasons which the solicitor or referring agency communicates to the applicant. Where an application is accepted, it can be beneficial if the solicitor or referring agency remains involved, at least as a point of contact for the Unit.

Cost risks

While the service provided by the BPBU is free, there is a risk the assisted party will be ordered to pay the costs of the other side if the case is lost or partly lost. If the assisted party wins, the court may make a costs order under s 194 of the Legal Services Act 2007. This requires the losing party to make a payment to the Access to Justice Foundation. The money is then re-distributed to support the availability of more pro bono legal assistance in the future. In deciding on the amount of the costs order, the court considers the costs that would have been payable had the pro bono lawyers been charging for their services.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.