"So many dreams at first seem impossible. And then they seem improbable. And then when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable."
~ Christopher Reeve

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pro Bono Publico

Courtesy of Wikipedia:
Pro bono publico (usually shortened to pro bono) is a phrase derived from Latin meaning "for the public good." The term is sometimes used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment as a public service. It is common in the legal profession and is increasingly seen in marketing, technology, and strategy consulting firms. Pro bono service, unlike traditional volunteerism, uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.

Pro bono legal counsel may assist an individual or group on a legal case, in filing government applications or petitions, or on appeal. A judge may occasionally determine that the loser should compensate a winning pro bono counsel.
And on that note, I was pleased to attend the Nova Scotia Pro Bono Study's Round Table Discussion this past Friday in Halifax.

It was a good meeting of not just lawyers, law professors and law students but also individuals representing various mental health, immigration and youth services in the community. And I was pleased to see that the disability community was well-represented by the attendance and advocacy of Professor Archie Kaiser, who currently serves on the Board of Directors of both reachAbility and the Nova Scotia Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The purpose of the various Round Tables being held throughout the Province (**the remaining upcoming Round Tables include Sydney and Antigonish) is to study engagement and interest in pro bono legal work and examine whether a formal pro bono program would benefit the communities in Nova Scotia.

So, here is just a smattering of what I learned on Friday.

  • Every law school in Canada currently has a Pro Bono Students Association.

  • In addition, four provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and, most recently, Saskatchewan) have Pro Bono Associations.

  • Some models currently in use include drop-in centres at the court house manned on a rotating basis so two volunteer lawyers are always present (Ontario) and "summary advice clinics" where individuals receive one-half hour consultations with a lawyer at no charge and if further legal representation is required, the individual will be referred to a lawyer who has agreed to make this larger time commitment (British Columbia).

  • The suggestion was also made that not every individual seeking "legal advice" necessarily requires the services of a lawyer; a social worker or court worker (who can assist with procedural questions and the filling out of forms) may be all that is actually required in some cases.

  • Another idea floated was that of a pro bono volunteer "board" where lawyers interested in volunteering as a member of a community board could be matched up with an organization seeking such a board member.

  • Issues raised for me when discussing the above models included what the income cut-off line would be for such a service and the necessity of "streaming" people in the proper direction, so that those who actually did need to speak to a lawyer would be able to do so.
As I said, it was a good discussion and I think it was well worth my (and by extension, your) time. This is an issue that really needs to move forward in this Province and, at least in the small sub-group I was involved in, the two communities most identified as needing such a service were youth and the disabled.

But what was really heartening and exciting for me, personally, was to see was a committed, passionate group of Nova Scotia lawyers who recognize the need for such an initiative and appear willing to move it forward.

The Study is currently gathering information from stakeholders around the Province through these Round Tables and surveys of the legal profession and will be presenting a final report/presentation in the Spring of 2009.

And fortunately for you, it's still not too late. You can provide your valuable input to this initiative by completing the Community Members Survey.

So stick around and I will keep you updated.

** Antigonish: Monday October 6, 2:30-4pm, Maritime Inn, 158 Main Street.
Sydney: Tuesday October 7, 10-11:30pm, Program Room, McConnell Library, 50 Falmouth St.
Please confirm attendance in advance at: (902) 429-1913 or nsprobono@gmail.com


Update: Organizations currently offering pro bono services include reachAbility, the Halifax Refugee Clinic, Canadian Mental Health Association, Nova Scotia Legal Aid, Legal Information Society, Dalhousie Legal Aid, Pro Bono Students Canada and various religious institutions.