Reinventing pro bono

When Dugald Christie pioneered the legal clinics at the Salvation Army his vision of a more equitable legal system was just getting started. The informal legal advice program that he founded in 1985 grew into a series of clinics, but Christie’s plans reached much farther. In 1999, he set off to expand the clinic model with the Western Canadian Society to Access Justice. A call for more volunteers went out and BC lawyers signalled their commitment to serving the public good.

In less than a decade, the number of pro bono services available in BC has exploded. Today, the Salvation Army offers 22 clinics in communities around the province, and they have plans to open more, including a northern expansion program that will cover Prince George, Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Prince Rupert and Williams Lake. The Western Canadian Society to Access Justice has over 400 volunteer lawyers staffing 61 clinics from Campbell River to Winnipeg. The UBC Law Students’ Legal Advice Program and the University of Victoria Law Centre run busy pro bono services with the help of dedicated students. And Pro Bono Law of BC has emerged to develop new and original ways of providing pro bono representation and assistance to people and non-profit organizations of limited means through its roster programs.

But as quickly as pro bono services have sprung up and lawyers have come forward, the demand for legal advice and representation has grown even more. This spring, the three leaders in BC’s pro bono world, John Pavey, manager of pro bono and justice services for the Salvation Army, Allan Parker, the new executive director of the Western Canadian Society to Access Justice, and Jamie Maclaren, executive director of Pro Bono Law of BC, began to reinvent how they will deliver pro bono in the future.

Under a $75,000 grant provided by the Law Foundation of BC, the three organizations have committed to map out a system that will identify what services are available and, where gaps and duplicate services exist, ultimately allow the organizations to direct clients to the services most appropriate to their needs. By working together to coordinate pro bono service delivery, Pavey, Parker and Maclaren hope to serve their clients in a much more expeditious and effective manner.

“We are looking at how we can integrate our organizations to provide a more seamless continuum of services, particularly to promote cross-referrals, bring our organizations closer together in our aspirations and foster a greater sense of cooperation and camaraderie among pro bono service providers,” says Maclaren.

Pro Bono Law of BC already offers a searchable map outlining all pro bono legal services in BC (probonomap.bc.ca), and Access Justice provides a list of alternative resources for clients on its website (accessjustice.ca). Coordinated service delivery is a concept that the Salvation Army (probono.ca) is also very familiar with.

“Through dealing with our clients’ legal issues we are often presented with deeper issues, such as the need for family counselling and the basic essentials of life — food, clothing and shelter,” Pavey comments. He says there is a huge unmet need for legal assistance, pointing to the example of family law cases, where lengthy, drawn-out processes often lead people to fend for themselves.

“No matter how many clinics we run, there is always more demand,” says Parker. “We feel it’s our role to bridge the gap where members of the public feel that they can’t reach the private Bar to address their legal needs. We will also continue to provide a voice for low-income clients around access to justice issues.”

While a recent survey conducted by Pro Bono Law of BC shows that the majority of pro bono clients come to lawyers via referrals from family, friends or colleagues — and sole practitioners carry a substantial load — Maclaren, Pavey and Parker point to the benefits of working with their organizations. Maclaren notes that many lawyers don’t know that Pro Bono Law of BC provides disbursement coverage for poverty law cases. The Law Society also extends insurance coverage to lawyers who are not otherwise insured for certain pro bono legal services provided through approved programs. In addition, the Lawyers Insurance Fund waives the financial consequences of paid claims for lawyers providing pro bono services in these circumstances.

Pavey, Parker and Maclaren also note that, when lawyers volunteer with their organizations, they can rely on an organized model that helps clients to get ready for their meeting with the lawyer, while ensuring conflict resolution processes are in place.

“We provide a setting that is comfortable for both the clients who need legal advice, and the lawyers who are volunteering their time,” says Parker. “Our volunteers are the heart of the work that we do.”

It is clear the BC Bar continues to be very active in the pro bono world, but Pro Bono Law of BC would like to see more law firms with formal pro bono policies in place. At present, 30 to 40 per cent of large, Vancouver law firms have pro bono policies, signalling an important shift in corporate values. But the push is coming from young lawyers who want to work in firms that recognize and support pro bono service.

“Law students are increasingly looking at what firms are doing in the pro bono sphere and they want to see a pro bono policy in place,” Maclaren says. “Pro bono work also allows young associates to gain experience in a wide range of legal issues, to get in the courtroom and to conduct their own files. It’s a win-win for law firms and for the public.”

Pro Bono Law of BC has also helped broker partnerships between law firms and community organizations, such as the partnership between Davis & Co. and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, and the more recent partnership between Blakes and the Parkinson Society British Columbia. The partnerships allow the non-profits to provide their clients with a direct link to free legal advice, while enabling the law firms to build meaningful community relationships.

If the last ten years are any indication, the pro bono world is bound for change. But no matter what the future holds, people in need of legal assistance can depend on lawyers to answer the call.

“There is a very long history of pro bono service in BC, and we have led the way nationally, Maclaren says. “It’s difficult to think of any other profession where people contribute so many hours to the public interest. The primary reason lawyers do pro bono work is because they feel it’s the right thing to do.”