Improving access to legal services through collaboration in the pro bono community
Timothy E. McGee
In his current President’s View column, John Hunter, QC discusses the strategic priorities adopted by the Benchers for 2008 and beyond. One of those priorities is for the Law Society to consider ways of enhancing the public’s access to legal services. I would like to pick up on this theme and provide you with my perspective on positive developments in two related areas: the Law Society’s new funding model for supporting pro bono legal services in BC, and the growing spirit of collaboration among pro bono legal service agencies operating in our province.
Last year the Benchers decided to change the model for providing financial support to organizations in BC that provide pro bono legal services. Instead of reviewing and determining grant requests from a variety of agencies on an ad hoc basis, the Benchers approved a more streamlined system whereby a flat one per cent of the annual practice fee is now allocated for pro bono causes and given to the Law Foundation to administer and distribute to pro bono agencies throughout the province. The Law Society provided approximately $100,000 to the Law Foundation in support of pro bono services in 2007.
By all accounts this new arrangement is working well. The Law Foundation is well equipped to conduct the necessary evaluation and ongoing assessment of funded agencies and our coordination with the Law Foundation in this arrangement has generated positive feedback from those organizations. In addition, total Law Society funding for pro bono services has increased slightly under the new model, and the simplicity of the one per cent fee allocation improves the planning and budgeting process for all involved.
I met recently with the leaders of Pro Bono Law BC, Western Canada Society to Access Justice and Salvation Army Pro Bono Consultants to touch base on their 2008 initiatives. I came away with the strong impression that collaboration and cooperation among these key service providers were important priorities for their respective organizations.
In particular, I learned that concrete steps are being taken to coordinate the location of new clinics and to look at ways to combine or rationalize the resources of existing clinics to better serve the needs of their communities. Their collaboration also extends to making better use of technology to streamline their cross-organizational service to clients, i.e. to improve the matching of needs and resources. Possibilities under discussion include integrating the Access Justice roster database and referral software into Salvation Army clinics, and permitting Access Justice to book appointments for clients and lawyers at Salvation Army pro bono clinics through the Salvation Army’s database. I believe these practical steps and important discussions are taking place because the leaders of these organizations are committed to pursuing progress through cooperation and innovation. From my perspective, they are on the right track.
Beyond funding support for pro bono legal services, the Law Society is actively looking at ways to support broader collaboration in the pro bono area. For example, the Law Society recently hosted a two-hour workshop discussion on pro bono service referral issues, attended by representatives of almost 50 pro bono delivery organizations and community agencies operating in the Lower Mainland. Many attendees spoke of the importance of this strong community spirit, and discussed a number of practical opportunities for cooperative action. The group identified as a priority a shared province-wide database of pro bono and publicly funded legal and advocacy service providers and community organizations. We expect there will be further discussions aimed at developing this valuable service tool with the ongoing support and guidance of the Law Foundation.
I look forward to reporting to you in the future as the Benchers continue their review and assessment of further opportunities of enhancing the public’s access to legal services.