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Pro bono: Pro bono triage delivers results

Every Issue

Cite as: May 2011 85(5) LIJ, p.76


A new pro bono system is helping direct resources where they’re most needed.

Not-for-profit community organisations (NFPs) require assistance on a wide range of legal issues. The regulatory environment in which community organisations operate is more complex than that governing commercial business,1 however the majority of NFPs have minimal resources, are volunteer-run, and have limited access to legal assistance.

From choosing the right structure to applying for tax concessions, the legal issues create significant challenges for pro bono.

PilchConnect, a specialist legal service for Victorian NFPs operating within the Public Information Law Clearing House (PILCH), has developed an innovative model that leverages limited pro bono resources to achieve maximum impact for a wide range of community organisations.

This approach adopts the use of both direct and indirect legal assistance to maximise the number of NFPs that can benefit from an environment where the availability of pro bono is commonly exceeded by the demand.

The pro bono model relies on both in-house expertise and resources of the private legal profession to offer NFPs a range of free and user-pays services, including:

  • a web portal on NFP legal issues2 providing plain language legal information;
  • training seminars for NFPs across Victoria on how to identify and manage legal issues;
  • telephone legal advice for inquiries that do not require extensive file work or document review; and
  • referral of public interest NFPs to PILCH member law firms for pro bono assistance.

This approach to pro bono allows for lawyers to contribute on a range of levels beyond the traditional referral and advice for a single NFP client. Lawyers can reach out to multiple organisations by drafting resources for the web-portal, delivering training seminars on legal issues facing NFPs, or assisting with policy submissions.

Through these indirect methods, NFPs are empowered to self-identify and address regulatory issues without the need for a direct pro bono relationship. This in turn frees up scarce pro bono resources so that in-depth legal advice can be reserved for those NFPs most in need.

The launch of a telephone advice service in 2010 saw requests for pro bono assistance triaged in a way that allowed minor inquiries to be addressed in-house, with more complex matters referred to external law firms. This triage method enhances the ability to “filter” pro bono requests, and increases the capacity for clients to be connected with the most appropriate form of assistance in an environment where a comprehensive pro bono referral will not always be available.

A further benefit is that it creates a “feedback loop” in which direct services to NFPs feed into and bolster less direct services. For example, client inquiry trends allow for identification of topics for future training modules, common telephone advice questions inform new content for website resources, and dialogue with the NFP sector provides a strong evidence base for law reform and advocacy work.

The following scenario illustrates typical client interaction with this model of pro bono delivery:

A group wants to help people with disabilities access volunteering opportunities. The group seeks information about incorporation, and is referred to the web-portal’s plain language guides on “getting started”.

The group decides to incorporate. However, it is unsure about whether it will be required to have its accounts subjected to an annual audit. The group is provided with telephone advice, clarifying the reporting obligations.

Following incorporation, the organisation’s secretary attends a training seminar to learn more about the legal role and responsibilities of committee members. The knowledge gained at this seminar is communicated to the other board members at their next meeting.

Twelve months later, the group develops a successful volunteer training program for people with disabilities. The organisation is keen to allow other groups to utilise its training materials, however it wants to make sure its intellectual property is protected. It is referred to a law firm for legal advice in relation to intellectual property matters.

Since July 2010, PilchConnect has applied this model of service delivery to triage over 600 inquiries, resulting in over 50 referrals for extensive pro bono advice, over 200 telephone advices, numerous legal training sessions attended by over 600 participants from the NFP sector and some 50 factsheets accessed online.

The insights gained from this service are currently being shared with organisations in Singapore and Ireland that are seeking to establish similar pro bono legal services.

For more information about PilchConnect see www.pilchconnect.org.au.



JUANITA POPE and NATHAN MacDONALD are senior lawyers at PilchConnect. ANNA DOREVITCH is a secondee lawyer at PilchConnect.

1. Senate Standing Economics Committee, Inquiry into disclosure regimes for charities and not-for-profit organisations (2008), http://bit.ly/eFGWLS.

2. www.pilchconnect.org.au.

Looking to help?

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

Name of group: Fernlea House Inc.

Contact person: Helen Pike

Email: admin@fernlea.com.au

Address: 149 Emerald-Monbulk Road, Emerald 3782

Fernlea House

Fernlea House has established a home-like facility in Emerald for people with a life-threatening illness, offering palliative care and support for guests, and support for carers (including bereavement counselling). The long-term vision is to also offer 24-hour residential care. Fernlea members are involved in fundraising and community education and run an outreach program to visit people unable to get to our centre.

Current needs of group

The committee of management needs members to assist in the overall governance. It particularly seeks people with legal and/or marketing skills, and professional writers to help with grant applications. 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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