The Bar Pro Bono Unit

What is the Bar Pro Bono Unit?

The Bar Pro Bono Unit was established in 1996 by Lord Goldsmith QC. It is a registered charity which helps to find pro bono or free legal assistance from volunteer barristers for those who need it. The Unit is dedicated to increasing access to justice.

Who can get help

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

  • 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 involvesthe law of England and Wales.

  • Any one piece of work for which assistance is required will not take more than 3 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 Unit can assist organisations such as 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 Bar Pro Bono Unit can help with

The Pro Bono Unit itself cannot give legal advice. However, the Unit has a small team of staff who co-ordinate the large panel of volunteer barristers who assist on cases. The number of volunteer panel members registered with the Pro Bono Unit now exceeds 2000 with over 250 Queen Counsel. These volunteer barristers specialise in all areas of law and can assist with any of the services 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. The Pro Bono Protocol for Legal Work was jointly developed by the Bar Pro Bono Unit 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 Bar Pro Bono Unit

Applications are not accepted from litigants in person directly. All applications to the Pro Bono Unit must be made through either a solicitor or advice agency, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau or a Law Centre who will assist an applicant in identifying whether a case is suitable for referral to the Unit. The Pro Bono Unit works closely in partnership with solicitors and advice agencies throughout England and Wales and encourages solicitors and referring agencies to liaise directly with the unit over individual applications and queries. However, the decision as to whether or not to make an application in an individual case is a matter for the solicitor or advice agency instructed. The Unit requires a minimum of 3 weeks notice before any hearing date or deadline so it is important that applicants see a solicitor or advice agency as soon as possible. The application form must be fully completed with all relevant information and copy documents which may be necessary to make a decision. Further information may be requested. The Pro Bono Unit will then correspond with the solicitor or referring agency up to and including the point where a decision is taken on an application.

Applications are reviewed by a member of an experienced panel of barristers to form a view as to the legal merits of the case and whether the assistance of a volunteer barrister is needed. The Unit then makes a decision having regard to the advice received from the panel member as well as looking at financial factors, how much work is required from the volunteer and where a solicitor is not involved whether a barrister is able to assist alone. The Unit does have a licence which enables the client to instruct a barrister without a solicitor where one has not been found although in some cases the assistance of a solicitor may be regarded as necessary. An applicant will only receive help on a step by step basis where the case is constantly reviewed by the Unit to consider further requests for help in light of any advice or representation already provided.

Where an application is rejected the Unit will write giving brief reasons why. However, the solicitor or referring agency involved is responsible for communication with the applicant and will need to help explain the reasons more fully. Where an application is accepted, it can be hugely beneficial if the solicitor or referring agency remains involved, at the very least as a point of contact for the Unit. Some solicitors or referring agencies may even be willing to assist by taking witness statements, corresponding with the other side and putting the bundles together for any hearings.

Any charity, community group, company or other organisation should contact the Pro Bono Unit directly for further details on how to apply.

Pro bono assistance from a solicitor or advice agency

Many, although not all, advice agencies are able to offer assistance free of charge. LawWorks is a charity which may be able to assist with finding a solicitor to act on a pro bono basis although an application to this organisation must be made through an advice agency. LawWorks website can be found In addition, LawWorks has helped create a dedicated website to student pro bono work This site provides information on the pro bono activities offered by each university and postgraduate law school. There is even a student pro bono group on Facebook.

Cost risks

Whilst the service provided by the Bar Pro Bono Unit is free, there still remains a risk that the assisted party will be ordered to pay the costs of the other side. This can happen where the case is lost or even where only part of a case is lost and the successful party obtains an order that their own legal costs be paid by the losing party. A party will not be protected from a costs order being made against them simply by reason of being in receipt of assistance from the Pro Bono Unit, and further the involvement of a volunteer barrister will not prevent any such costs order being enforced. It is, however, also possible for a costs order to be granted in favour of the assisted applicant under section 194 of the Legal Services Act 2007. Previously, even where a case had been won by the pro bono assisted party, the losing party would escape any liability for costs. Section 194 of the 2007 Act was specifically created for use in pro bono cases. This means that where a pro bono assisted party wins its case, the court may make a section 194 order requiring the losing party to make a payment to the prescribed charity, 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.