PRO BONO services in western Sydney fall heavily on the legal profession, according to an expert group at the University of Western Sydney.
It is time the enormous workload is spread more evenly, commentators have argued, and for large firms to take on an even greater role.
The Australian Expert Group in Industry Studies at the university is investigating the way legal services are provided in the Macarthur, Parramatta and Southern Highland areas. A survey is being sent to 347 firms in the region with a view to exploring alternative and more efficient means by which those who can do something share the burden of pro bono work.
Access to justice could be improved if interested stakeholders, including small firms, community legal centres, large city firms and the University of Western Sydney share the work more evenly, said the chief investigator on the project, Sebastian De Brennan.
“Research to date demonstrates that the demand for pro bono services is a demand that falls unequally on the legal profession. While practitioners in the suburbs tend to spend more time on pro bono matters than their larger counterparts, they are often in a worse financial position to take on non-paying work,” De Brennan said.
The firms that can best afford it, the big law firms, generally specialise in areas that don’t lend themselves as well to pro bono work, De Brennan said. These big firms are more inclined to focus on commercial and corporate law, which cannot be as useful for pro bono work, he said.
The University of Western Sydney recently launched a program aimed at matching final year volunteer law students with public interest organisations, charities and lawyers needing assistance to manage their pro bono workloads. The program, based on a Canadian model, is called Pro Bono Students Australia.
Legal aid is in a “dire state”, according to De Brennan. “Lawyers are finding it difficult to meet the ever increasing demand for pro bono legal services,” he said.
“Although increased government funding for access to justice initiatives is the only viable solution, we want lawyers and charities to know that we have a bunch of bright volunteer law students here ready to do whatever they can — whether that be performing some legal research for a pro bono matter, or running some documents down to the local court,” he said.