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Pro bono work and social justice
Pro bono work and social justice

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1 What is pro bono?

Pro bono is derived from the Latin term pro bono publico which can be translated as ‘for the public good’. In a professional and legal capacity, lawyers provide free legal services to members of the public who are unable to pay. Some consider that a commitment to pro bono work should be a requirement of professional practice and in some jurisdictions, such as South Africa, it is a mandatory obligation.

Figure 1 Pro bono

In England and Wales, pro bono is a voluntary commitment, which is encouraged by the regulatory bodies of the legal profession. The National Pro Bono Centre is a charity created in 2010 and acts as a clearing house for pro bono work. Each of the bodies has a charity which supports free legal advice assistance – the Bar Pro Bono Unit [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (for barristers), LawWorks (the solicitors’ pro bono group) and the CILEx Pro Bono Trust (for legal executives). You can find out more about these organisations by visiting their websites.

Box 1 Defining pro bono

Pro bono is provided in a number of different ways but the overriding principle is that the service is free. It is defined as:

Legal advice or representation provided by lawyers in the public interest including to individuals, charities and community groups who cannot afford to pay for that advice or representation and where public funding and alternative means of funding is not available.

Legal work is Pro Bono Legal Work only if it is free to the client, without payment to the lawyer or law firm (regardless of the outcome) and provided voluntarily either by the lawyer or his or her firm.

(LawWorks, 2015, paras 1.1–1.2)

Pro bono is not a substitute for legal aid. There is concern that the expansion of pro bono encourages the state to allow pro bono work to fill the gap of unmet legal need. There has been much critical discussion around the definition of ‘unmet legal need’ but, broadly speaking, it can be defined as when an individual’s capacity to seek legal assistance is restricted because they cannot afford to pay for legal services. The debate about the role of pro bono is encapsulated in Richard Abel’s article ‘The paradoxes of pro bono’, in which he describes pro bono as a ‘puzzle’ in how we allow the voluntary goodwill of lawyers to enable governments to reduce their responsibilities to provide free legal services

This is a theme that will be explored throughout this course.

Activity 1 What does pro bono mean to you?

Timing: You should allow yourself 20 minutes to do this activity.
  • a.Watch this video: ‘What is pro bono?’.
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‘What is pro bono?’
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  • b.Watch this video in which student Jack Crisp talks about what pro bono means to him.
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Jack Crisp
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  • d.Answer these questions:
  • i.What does pro bono mean to you?
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  • ii.Why is pro bono important?
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Comment

Everybody studying this OpenLearn course will have a different explanation of what pro bono means to them and why they think pro bono is important. Winston Churchill said ‘we make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.’ You may think that pro bono is important because:

  • giving to others makes people feel good
  • pro bono provides others with much needed help
  • people doing pro bono are giving something back to society and making a difference
  • pro bono helps uphold the rule of law
  • undertaking pro bono work is a good way to learn and develop practical legal skills
  • undertaking pro bono work helps you to connect with lots of different people.