A NATIONAL study has identified some of the main constraints discouraging legal practices from becoming involved in pro bono work, and suggests the Victorian Government’s approach to using incentives to encourage more to take on pro bono work should be followed.
Mapping Pro Bono in Australia, released last week, said inadequate government funding in some areas, mismatch of lawyer’s skills with the work required, perceived conflicts of interest, litigation costs and complexity, and confusion over where to get assistance were among the chief constraints.
The report said in real terms there has been a reduction in funding to legal aid and community legal centres, and this was leading to more unrepresented litigants and pro bono legal assistance in areas that should be the preserve of government.
The director of the NPBRC, John Corker, said there needs to better coordination of where to go to get pro bono legal assistance.
“[There should be] more one-stop-shopping for the consumer. One, to know about its availability, but two, to actually find someone who will take on the case,” he said.
“It is fair to say that Victoria has a better model than NSW in that way. It has all three professional association referral schemes, that is the Law Institute of Victoria, the Bar Association and the Public Interest Law Clearing House under the one roof, and that is managed by the one person, with the one phone number.”
Although a report on the scheme’s progress was yet to be released, Corker also praised the Victorian Government’s legal panel model for accessing legal services, and its requirements that firms on the panel meet pro bono targets.
“The Victorian Government is the only state government that has in place a policy framework to encourage the private profession to do pro bono work,” he said.
“I think the evidence is in that that has had a positive outcome in terms of more pro bono work being done in Victoria, and it being done in a more structured and efficient way. So I think that’s something that other governments should be looking at, both federal and state.”
Other suggestions include aspirational targets of 35 hours per lawyer per year should be set by firms, more resources put into supporting lawyers outside of private practice to do pro bono work, and lawyers looking at non-casework ways to assist.
“Firms are quite well placed to have their lawyers undertake law reform work on behalf of community groups, to prepare submissions to respond to draft legislation. It’s work that can be done in-house, often by a mid-ranking lawyer, or even a junior lawyer. It’s not so time-pressured, and yet it can be of great value,” Corker said.
He said another constraint on pro bono assistance was disbursement cost, particularly in work related to litigation. He said courts could waive expenses such as copy costs.
Out of the top-tier firms, so far Blake Dawson Waldron, Allens Arthur Robinson and Clayton Utz have signed up to the aspirational target of 35 hours of pro bono work, per lawyer, per year. Other firms include Arnold Bloch Leibler.
Corker said every year the NPBRC would check on firm’s progress and publish anonymous figures on the levels reached.