Legal Needs of Asylum Seekers Driving Pro Bono Law Growth
22 March 2017 at 10:54 am
Lawyers in large law firms in Australia averaged 34.8 hours of pro bono legal work in 2016 — 9.7 per cent more than in 2014, according to a new report by the Australian Pro Bono (Law) Centre.
The Fifth National Pro Bono (Law) Survey collates and analyses data provided by 41 of the 58 large law firms in Australia, including 19 of 20 of the largest firms.
The study found that in the seven largest firms in Australia (more than 450 lawyers), pro bono performance remained generally stable at an average of 39.4 hours.
“A key driver of this growth is the rising unmet legal need of asylum seekers,” the report said.
“In 2016 immigration ranked third in the list of areas of law in which the most pro bono work is done, moving up from 12th in 2014. Forty per cent of firms in the survey listed immigration in their top five areas of pro bono practice, up from 15 per cent in 2014,” it said.
In 2016 lawyers from large legal firms reached the voluntary national target (of at least 35 hours) for providing pro bono legal services for the first time in five years.
In every survey report since 2008, family law and criminal law have been the areas where requests for pro bono assistance were most often rejected by large firms. The 2016 survey was no exception.
The report said the next most rejected areas were immigration, debt and employment law, indicating “continuing unmet legal demand in these areas”.
CEO of the Australian Pro Bono (Law) Centre, John Corker said: “Despite this impressive growth, the performance across the 41 respondent firms is still strikingly uneven, ranging from four hours of pro bono work per lawyer a year, to 71 hours.
“There is clearly room for a much stronger effort at several firms,” he said.
“The survey allows firms to benchmark themselves against their peers and firms are encouraged to do so.”
However, he said there were indications in the report that further growth may be limited due to constraints on the capacity of large firms to take on more pro bono work.
As many as 83 per cent of firms cited “firm capacity” as one of the three biggest challenges facing their pro bono program, and over half said that their internal pro bono target was likely to remain the same in 2017.
“Pro bono is a limited resource,” Corker said.
“The centre has been working to help small to mid-sized firms to grow pro bono but each firm has its own capacity constraints. Additional growth prospects are most likely amongst those firms that don’t have particularly well developed pro bono practices. The centre has resources to assist these firms and we are working on strategies to achieve a more even spread of effort,” he said.
The report said direct requests from people or organisations seeking pro bono help remained the most common source of pro bono work for large firms, with 38 per cent of new matters arising this way.
However, the data also showed a growth in responses to requests from Community Legal Centres (CLCs). In 2016, overall large firms received 20 per cent of their pro bono matters from CLCs, with mid-size firms receiving up to 33 per cent of matters this way.
Chair of the Australian Pro Bono (Law) Centre, Phillip Cornwell said: “It is good to see CLCs taking greater advantage of the pro bono legal services available but we are concerned at the impact of the forthcoming funding cuts to CLCs.
“There is neither capacity nor I think a willingness on the part of private law firms to bridge the massive gap that will open up if the funding cuts are not reversed,” Cornwell said.
“Further, many firms rely on partnering with legal assistance services such as CLCs to provide pro bono assistance. The funding cuts will not only reduce the capacity of CLCs to provide services – they may also reduce the ability of law firms to do pro bono work.”
Earlier this month the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) raised $400,000 in just five days of a 14-day fundraising campaign to pay human rights lawyers to provide legal support for more than 1,000 asylum seekers in Australia.
The fundraising campaign called #KeepThemSafe sort to provide legal support for 1,150 people seeking asylum who the ASRC said were currently at risk.
The previous law centre survey in 2014 raised questions about where the balance should lie between pro bono legal work for organisations and for individuals.
Corker said that encouragingly the 2016 survey results showed that the split has shifted from 65 per cent for organisations and 35 per cent for individuals in 2014, to 56 per cent for organisations and 44 per cent for individuals in 2016.
“As the pro bono ethos for lawyers stems from an ethical professional responsibility to improve access to justice, it is vital that law firms devote a significant part of their pro bono programs to directly helping individuals,” Corker said.