Human rights mean little without access to justice; without the ability to challenge abuses of those rights. Yet threats to access to justice in Northern Ireland and across Europe are real and imminent. The rights and entitlements of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable are being cut with one hand and the ability to challenge such attacks are being taken away with the other by way of reductions in legal aid budgets (see for example the recently published report by the Legal Action Group on the impact of legal aid cuts on people with disabilities here and the Civil Justice Council’s report which finds that legal aid cuts ‘will stop the most vulnerable getting justice’ here).
In the face of this, and indeed partly because of it, a European-wide community of pro bono lawyers and NGOs are stepping up to the plate to ensure that the abuse of rights of the most vulnerable do not go unchallenged. Last week saw this international community come together in Berlin for the 5th Annual European Pro Bono Forum organised by PILnet, the Global Network for Public Interest Law. The PILS Project witnessed the inspiring sight of international legal firms such as Allen & Overy, Freshfields and Herbert Smith discussing ways of harnessing their resources and legal expertise for the benefit of the most disadvantaged, alongside NGOs from the furthest corners of Europe and further afield. Also present were much smaller firms and individual lawyers who shared the ways in which they are engaging in pro bono work on a more local scale, as well as representatives from bar associations who highlighted the work they are doing to promote and facilitate pro bono work within their respective countries.
What was most surprising about the event was not its participant list but the innovative range of pro bono work being done. Quite often the term pro bono is used to refer to lawyers simply giving advice or representing an individual without receiving payment. However its origins come from the Latin phrase ‘pro bono publico’ which translates into the much broader concept of working ‘for the public good’. It was in the latter sense that projects such as the South Africa based Probono.org described how they set up stalls in a local court to offer assistance to individuals without a lawyer. The organisation has also supported lawyers to provide pro bono legal advice and expertise on local radio. The Russian office of PILnet recently finished a four day programme on ethics for law students which was sponsored and delivered by local lawyers.
Closer to home in England, Law Works provides opportunities for lawyers who are unemployed or on a career break to build on their skills and expertise by providing free legal advice to individuals and NGOs. The same organisation has set up a free online service through which NGOs can obtain answers to basic legal queries from lawyers. The event also heard from the Public Interest Law Alliance in Dublin which has had notable success with their legal referral scheme through which they provide NGOs with access to lawyers. Such lawyers deliver training on specific areas of law and assistance with law reform and litigation.
The motivation of lawyers involved in pro bono work extends further than simply moral or ethical reasons, although this remains a key driving factor. Firms and lawyers described a range of practical benefits that being part of a pro bono project can bring. It adds to their reputation and can give them an edge over their competitors. It provides the opportunity for lawyers to work on interesting issues they might not deal with in their routine work and opens doors to areas of paid work outside of their usual business. It can also be a great opportunity for young lawyers to develop their skills. The message was clear: pro bono is an investment!
The event was an eye opener in terms of the potential that more innovative and structured pro bono work could have in providing access to justice for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in Northern Ireland. There is already a strong and committed ethos of pro bono work within the legal profession here. Now, in times of austerity and cuts, there is an ever-expanding community of disadvantaged people who are in need of access to justice but who find themselves furthest from it. There are a number of local initiatives attempting to bring these two communities together:
The PILS Project, which works to advance human rights and equality through public interest litigation, has recently established a pro bono register of Northern Ireland solicitors and barristers who are interested in pro bono work in this field. We work with 30 NGOs from across Northern Ireland, supporting them to use strategic litigation to protect the rights of the disadvantaged or vulnerable groups they work with and for. Pro bono opportunities with us may include providing information to one or a number of those organisations on a particular legal topic or issue or providing advice on the human rights compliance or legality of specific laws or policies. Other opportunities range from providing an initial opinion for the PILS Project and/or involvement in a test case, to writing an article for the PILS Project Newsletter, analysing a recent case or delivering legal training. The PILS Project would like to expand its pro bono register, so if you are interested please email Marieanne@pilsni.org.
The Northern Ireland Lawyers Pro Bono Unit, run jointly by the Bar Council and Law Society, has been in operation for a number of years. It offers legal advice to and representation for individuals that cannot access legal aid on a range of issues. Lawyers on the Unit’s register commit themselves to 3 days or 20 hours pro bono work per year.
Early in 2012, Law Centre (NI) will be launching the Legal Support Project, a free representation unit that will concentrate on representation at social security appeals and industrial tribunals in particular. The initiative has come about because of an increased demand for representation which is currently not being met. The work will be undertaken by volunteers, trained and supported by the staff of the project. The Legal Support Project is now looking for volunteers from a variety of legal backgrounds including law graduates, newly qualified lawyers who want to gain valuable representation experience and experienced legal practitioners. For further information contact Sinead Mulhern, Head of the Legal Support Project, directly at tel: 90244401 or email@example.com.
The Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan also acknowledged the important role pro bono work can play when he gave his address at the opening of the new legal year in September. He said that the judiciary are discussing a pilot project with the Bar Council and Law Society which would aim to give advice on practice and procedure to those involved in certain High Court cases without legal representation. Further details on the project have not been released yet.
It is clear that pro bono work is on the rise although it should not be seen as a replacement for legal aid and cannot fill the gaping hole in access to justice left by successive governments. However we hope that this expanding range of initiatives is indicative of a growing pro bono movement in Northern Ireland that is demanding more structured and cooperative approaches to the provision of access to justice. The potential impact of such change on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society could not come at a better time.