Pro bono legal work is what it means -- for the public good
Friday, September 11, 2009
- Organization: Vancouver Sun
In a society dedicated to the rule of law, it goes without saying that everyone must have equal access to justice.
Unfortunately, though, we have had significant trouble living up to that heady principle. In recent months we have heard many stories about people who find that justice is simply too expensive -- from those who reluctantly settle cases because they lack the funds to proceed, to litigants who proceed unrepresented because they can't afford a lawyer.
Those who choose -- or are forced -- not to proceed can never receive justice, and those who try to navigate the system alone have great difficulty protecting and advancing their rights, and often slow down the court process, which ultimately costs everyone more.
We've also heard some of the reasons for this sad state of affairs: B.C.'s court, jury and witness fees are exorbitant, meaning only the wealthiest of civil litigants can survive a trial lasting more than a few days. And cutbacks to legal aid mean that if low-income people want -- or need -- their day in court, they're on their own.
Consequently, British Columbians are expressing a lack of confidence in the justice system in record numbers. This puts significant pressure on the government and the courts to respond, and they have taken some steps to improve the accessibility of justice.
Attorney-General Mike de Jong recently announced some reforms, including fast-tracking relatively small cases and the provision of up to three days of trial time before litigants are required to pay court fees. These reforms should help, though they will be insufficient to ensure that anyone can have his or day in court.
This means that government and the courts must continue with reforms. But not just government and the courts: Lawyers, after all, play a major role in the justice system -- and make a decent living in the process -- and they therefore also have a responsibility to ensure that justice is available for everyone.
In other words, lawyers must work for the public good. And if we translate "for the public good" into Latin, we arrive at "pro bono publico" -- or "pro bono," the term used to describe the work of lawyers who represent needy litigants for free.
While not all lawyers do pro bono work -- and that is unfortunate -- every year more than 1,000 lawyers and law students do provide free services to low- and modest-income individuals at more than 100 pro bono clinics in B.C. Other lawyers and law firms provide pro-bono services to non-profit organizations.
Several non-profit organizations, including Pro Bono Law of BC, Western Canada Society to Access Justice, and the Salvation Army Pro Bono Program help to connect lawyers to needy clients, and run many pro bono clinics across B.C.
And this month, they'll be taking those clinics to the streets, with free
legal "advice-a-thons," designed to raise awareness of, and funds for, pro bono legal work in B.C.
The first advice-a-thon will be held today, in Victory Square park in Vancouver, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Lawyers will be on hand to assist low- and modest-income individuals, including homeless people. Further clinics will take place on Sept. 15 in Kelowna and on Sept. 18 in Victoria.
This won't solve all of our problems with access to justice, of course. But in raising awareness of the importance of pro bono work, it could help to ensure that lawyers play a major role, not just in the justice system, but in solving the problems of the system.