Lawyers react to Lammy's plan.
Labour will require every lawyer working in a City firm to provide 35 hours of pro bono work a year in order for it to qualify for government contracts, the party has said at its annual conference this week.
David Lammy, the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and Shadow Lord Chancellor, told attendees that it had been "another year of widening inequality" in which City law firms had made "billions in profit while low-paid workers see their tax bill rise and wages fall".
Having demonised City law, the Doughty Street tenant announced that a Labour government would introduce a "new national pro-bono service" to "support those who can’t afford legal advice and are ineligible for legal aid".
Labour explained that City firms would only be considered for government contracts if they provided at least 35 hours of pro bono legal services, per lawyer, per year.
The plan achieved the impossible by uniting corporate lawyers and Legal Aid lawyers, who dismissed the proposal as unworkable and misguided.
Mira Hammad, a barrister at Garden Court North, said it was a "terrible idea" for increasing access to justice which showed "complete contempt for the specialist skills and knowledge of lawyers working in legal aid sectors". Pro bono advice from lawyers "who don't understand the area can do more harm than good", she said.
Asylum and immigration lawyer Alasdair Mackenzie agreed that giving time for free to people who can’t afford legal advice "isn’t a bad thing as such", but it would not be necessary "if we had a functioning legal aid system". Lammy's plan "seems to exchange a right to properly funded access to justice for Victorian-style charity handed out by the rich", he said.
Others pointed out that treating people as loss leaders might not benefit them. "Imagine being the client represented by a lawyer forced to deal with your case in order to bring in more lucrative work for the firm", said one commenter.
City lawyers agreed that Lammy's proposal betrayed a lack of appreciation of the complexities of Legal Aid-related work. "Jesus, the idea of city lawyers working on criminal cases", said a poster on the RollOnFriday discussion board: "horrifying".
Labour's policy also appeared to overlook the financial ramifications for its external advisors. A City firm of 1,000 solicitors all swapping 35 hours of work charged at £200 an hour for unbillable pro bono time would cost it £7 million a year. Unless a firm compels its lawyers to rack up Lammy's pro bono contribution in addition to their existing workloads, shutters its current pro bono projects, or increases its rates, the cost of winning the government's contract might outweigh the benefits.
The Labour party did not respond to a request for comment.