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Pro Bono: Diversity evident in pro bono practice

Every Issue

Cite as: Jan/Feb 2011 85(1/2) LIJ, p.78

Lawyers' and firms' specialities and interests will affect the kinds of pro bono work they undertake.

For many lawyers, diversity in pro bono practice reflects their skills, expertise, resources and particular interests. It reflects their understanding of access to justice and unmet legal need in the community.

Many legal practitioners recognise a professional responsibility arising from the office they hold (and the privilege of that office) to uphold the rule of law, address systemic wrongs and assist people who are otherwise unable to obtain legal assistance.

The Law Council of Australia defines pro bono to include:

  • where a lawyer provides advice or representation for free or at a reduced fee to a client who cannot access the courts and legal system; and/or
  • where the client’s case raises a wider issue of public interest.1

This recognises that access to justice is served by individual casework as much as by broader public interest matters, and includes assistance provided to not-for-profit organisations.

Pro bono work can take the form of casework, advocacy, law reform, policy and community legal education. In practice, it is generally accepted to mean free legal services rather than reduced fees.

Matters appropriate for pro bono

Also implicit in the provision of pro bono is a decision on which matters to accept for assistance. That decision should be a considered one if pro bono is to appropriately address need.

There are no clear guidelines for determining whether a matter is appropriate for pro bono. On one level all pro bono has an access to justice element but, given limited capacity and significant unmet legal need, lawyers must decide which matters to accept and which matters to decline.

For example, immigration matters, evictions and the rights of persons with disabilities may be prioritised over motor vehicle accidents, investments and taxation issues. The latter are often seen as private matters which do not have a sufficient public interest or social justice element.

In each case, however, it may be appropriate to consider, for example, the impact on the individual, their agency in the legal issue, any degree of oppression or disadvantage, systemic issues, the wider benefit in providing assistance and the benefit to the administration of justice.

A broad understanding of unmet legal need and social justice also informs appropriate pro bono decisions. For example, significant barriers in accessing legal help are experienced by low-income earners, those with a chronic illness or disability, the young and elderly, and Indigenous members of the community. For these groups, legal problems often become compounded, so that the early resolution of apparently minor matters can have a strong social justice dimension.2

In making decisions on which matters to accept pro bono, lawyers and legal practices will also look for matters that align with their own areas of expertise and values. The LIV President’s Access to Justice Award 2010 is a good example of pro bono that reflects practice philosophy, expertise and legal need.

That award was won by Paul Holdway of Lewis Holdway Lawyers, which has a long history of providing pro bono assistance to victims of sexual abuse by the clergy. This work arose in part from the firm’s connections and commitment to faith.

Conclusion

The diversity of pro bono legal practice is to be encouraged, given the wide and varied instances of unmet legal need. Ideally pro bono must be considered in the wider context of social justice and public interest, just as it is approached according to capacity and expertise.



MICHELLE BATSAS is a secondee lawyer to the Public Interest Law Clearing House. The LIV Legal Assistance Scheme (LIVLAS) is a referral service that acts as a facilitator of pro bono legal assistance between the community and the private legal profession. LIVLAS extends its appreciation to firms that have registered with it. To register your firm with the scheme, complete the membership registration form at bit.ly/livlas or contact Gregor Husper or Teresa Cianciosi at LIVLAS on ph 8636 4425.

1. C Arup, “Defining pro bono: models and considerations”, paper presented at the First National Pro Bono Conference, For the public good, Canberra, 4–5 August 2000.

2. Christine Coumaleros, Zhigang Wei & Albert Zhou, NSW Law and Justice Foundation, “Justice Made to Measure: NSW legal needs survey in disadvantaged areas” (2006), xviii.

Looking to help

To help lawyers and firms become involved in pro bono work other than legal services, the LIJ profiles a community group and its needs each month.

Name of group: Wavecare Inc

Contact person: Grant Holland

Email: admin@wavecare.org.au

Address: 155 Coleman Parade, Glen Waverley

Wavecare Inc

Wavecare is a not-for-profit counselling organisation that has been operating in the City of Monash for 30 years.

Wavecare counsels individuals, families, couples and children at a subsidised rate for those on a low income. It also runs group programs from time to time and one day a week operates the Glencare Planned Activity program for frail elderly people living independently.

Current Needs of Group

Wavecare is currently seeking a marketing professional to “put Wavecare on the map” and develop some professional marketing materials and marketing strategies. Apply at www.goodcompany.com.au.

goodcompany

See goodcompany at www.goodcompany.com.au for more information on this and other skilled volunteering opportunities. For more information about volunteering in general, see also:

  • www.volunteeringaustralia.org
  • www.ourcommunity.com.au
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