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Firms urged to rethink approach to overseas pro bono

Firms urged to rethink approach to overseas pro bono

Law firms are often generous with their involvement in social projects, but pro bono work is not always the answer.

Speaking at a panel at the International Justice Mission’s Premier Breakfast, Federal Circuit Court Chief Justice John Pascoe suggested firms wanting to improve access to justice overseas must “start by actually listening”.

“I think it's important that from countries like Australia, we don't go to places like Asia thinking we know all the answers,” he said.

“There are a myriad of ways [to help] but talking down to people never helps.”

As an example, he cited an organisation in Cambodia that provides police officers with money to buy petrol for their motorbikes so they can investigate crimes.

In that community, rather than pro bono work or other projects, “one of the best things people can do is actually give the organisation money”, he suggested.

His sentiments were backed up by Amber Hawkes, the chief executive of International Justice Mission Australia.

“What's important is not to come at the situation with a preconceived notion with what the firm might think is the best thing to do,” she said.

“[We need] to recognise there are people working in the community on these issues and to understand what is the most impactful thing this company could engage in.”

While many firms have a preconceived notion that “we provide pro bono hours and that's how we do corporate social responsibility”, she suggested other approaches are frequently more effective.

“I think we need to go beyond that and understand an Australian lawyer providing pro bono assistance on a trafficking case in the Philippines might not be the best solution for a traumatised Filipino trafficking victim, nor have the most impact in the situation,” she suggested.

As an alternative, a better approach in some situations may be providing funding to on-the-ground projects or facilitating training or capacity building with local lawyers.

The International Justice Mission Australia employs 121 lawyers worldwide and is currently funding a justice project working with victims of the child sex trade in Cebu in the Philippines.

With its Time for Justice campaign, the group has raised $55,000 or the equivalent of three full-time lawyer salaries in Cebu.

NSW Premier Mike Baird also spoke at the International Justice Mission event, saying Australian corporations had an “onus and responsibility” to do more for the community, both domestically and overseas.

“If corporate Australia comes together, we have a great capacity to make a difference to those not just here but overseas.”

He also suggested the Australian government had a responsibility to assist vulnerable communities overseas.

“There is a desperate need around the world – surely we have an onus and responsibility to act,” he said.

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